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Virginia on the Half Shell

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By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

TOPPING, Va. -- Where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay, the girth of the river is formidable. This is where cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton, founders of Rappahannock River Oysters, untie their Carolina Skiff from the dock and putter downstream to check on their oysters.

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They navigate the afternoon's high waters not far from shore, over to some white PVC poles and buoys that mark the location of oyster cages. Ryan picks up a giant hook from the deck, attaching it to a rope he pulls from the water, and turns on the motor to the giant crank installed in the center of the skiff.

From several feet down, a wide shallow cage breaks the surface, decorated with rust and stocked with drawers that pull out to reveal thousands of mollusks. But not just any mollusks. These are Rappahannock oysters, prized for their buttery mildness.

"This time of year, three times a week, we often just jump over the side and tread while we're pulling what we need from the cages," says Travis, 33. "As the water gets colder, we try to stay dry, but it's trickier to get at them from the boat."

The oyster population in the Chesapeake region is a mere 3 percent of the historic bounties of decades past: 100,000 pounds a year in Virginia, down from 3 million in 1973, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. But a movement is afoot to replenish the population through aquaculture. As a result, oysters are growing by the millions, which is good for the health of the bay, not to mention oyster lovers' palates.

Ryan and Travis Croxton typify dozens of small farmers who have embraced so-called intensive aquafarming in the region. It's a relatively new development in the Chesapeake over the past five to 10 years but has become a primary means of growing oysters for consumption.

The Croxtons got into the business for sentimental reasons: Their grandfather and his father were oystermen. "Our grandfather was the kind of guy who wore a three-piece suit and a hat out on the boats," says Ryan, 38. William Arthur Croxton, who died in 1990, had a profitable career during the oyster heyday.

In 2002, Travis's father informed the cousins that the family's water rights lease was about to expire. "To renew it, you had to prove you were going to grow," says Ryan. "So that's what we set out to do."

The Croxtons were well aware of the challenges of raising oysters in the Chesapeake. They had little experience and knew few oystermen since their grandfather's time who were able to make a living at it. Damaged habitats, polluted waters and disease introduced by non-native species have made today's oyster industry a fickle one.

After "dozens of stupid attempts," Travis says, they decided to explore more effective, environmentally sound aquaculture techniques with the help of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, at the College of William and Mary, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. A year and several months later, about the amount of time it takes for oysters to grow to harvest size, they were ready to go to market.

Rather than stay local, the cousins decided to aim high: New York's Le Bernardin. "We called the reservation line and asked for Eric Ripert," Ryan says.

Surprisingly, they were invited to meet with the chef de cuisine, Chris Muller. With oyster-packed coolers hefted on shoulders like '80s boomboxes, the cousins trudged through Midtown, Chesapeake seawater streaming down their backs. At the restaurant, as soon as Muller tasted a Rappahannock, he wanted to carry them. In 2005, shortly after landing other accounts at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar and Shaffer City Oyster Bar & Grill in New York, the cousins made Food & Wine magazine's annual Tastemaker Awards list.


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