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Virginia on the Half Shell
Hometown Mollusks Are Making a Name for Themselves

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.

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.

As the Croxtons continued to build their client base in New York and Philadelphia, chef Todd Gray of Equinox sought them out on a visit home to his father, who lives nearby. Other local restaurants followed suit, including Vermilion, Tallula, DC Coast, Vidalia and, most recently, Old Ebbitt Grill, which this year will serve local oysters at its annual Oyster Riot event for the first time.

As in the old days, before oysters were served at restaurants year-round, the Croxtons harvest only in the cooler months. Many farmers interested in summer harvesting have incorporated into their stocks a type of oyster that doesn't spawn; when oysters are spawning, they become thin and flaccid, and their flavor is diminished. But the Croxtons say spawning isn't why they curtail oyster harvesting for the summer. Stress, too, affects flavor, and the transfer from warm waters to cold refrigerators makes the mollusks less plump and sweet.

Others in the region adhere to the "months-that-end-in-R" rule because it's tradition. Area oyster festivals are still held primarily in the fall; they include the Chincoteague Oyster Festival last weekend, the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival in Leonardtown, Md., this weekend, and the Urbanna, Va., Oyster Festival in early November.

Rappahannocks pulled from the water by the Croxtons are the native Crassostrea virginica, or virginica for short. Because they're so clean, the virginicas, predominant in the East, are particularly prone to taking on characteristics of their environment. That, according to Rowan Jacobsen's book "A Geography of Oysters," is called meroir: like terroir for grapes, in which place defines taste.

Oysters' diet and the water's minerality, salinity levels and flow shape meroir. It's why the cousins' Olde Salts from Chincoteaque are briny and bold. It's why their Stingrays, grown in water of moderate salinity, are described as balanced, and their York River oysters are mild.

Chesapeakes generally are sweeter than other oysters. "Because the Chesapeake is so well enclosed and has so many significant rivers emptying into it, it's relatively low in salinity," Jacobsen says. "Most consumers prefer a salty oyster, so the Chesapeake is an acquired taste for some. But those who grow up with it love it above all other oysters."

Stingray, Olde Salt and Rappahannock are essentially brand names of oysters that denote where they're raised. It's how it was done in the heyday of Chesapeake oysters, when Lynnhavens were among the most prized on the Eastern Seaboard, according to Jacobsen.

A generic "Chesapeake" label suggests mass production: Gulf oysters are brought from Louisiana or Texas, dropped in the water for a couple of months, then sold as a product of Virginia or Maryland, a practice frowned upon by small farmers concerned with flavor.

One key to the Croxtons' success is that virginicas have become more tolerant of viruses that were introduced by non-native species in the 1950s and '70s, Leggett says. But the Croxtons aren't the only ones growing and selling their harvest. Others include Jack White of New Point Oysters in New Point, Va.; and Bruce Wood of Nomini Creek, Va., whose Dragon Creek oysters can be found at Tallula, Vermilion, Restaurant Eve and Hank's Oyster Bar.

Sandy Lewis, general manager at Hank's, discovered them a couple of years ago. "This man just came in from the street one afternoon in between lunch and dinner," Lewis says, "and dropped off a bag of 200 Dragon Creeks. Of course I'd never had them. And they're delicious." They're mild and sweet, shaped by the low salinity of Nomini Creek.

Wood, a retired Air Force officer, ended up in marine science because he thought it would be an interesting hobby that would help clean the bay. He started with 500 oysters and a cage. "Then I had to buy more cages. Then -- oh, by the way -- more oysters and more cages," he says. "You know how guys are with their toys."

At Dragon Creek, he raises oysters in mesh bags mounted in a cage to protect them from stingrays, fish and crabs. During part of the year he uses floating rafts near the surface, a technique only recently attempted in the Chesapeake region.

"Unlike fish farming," which has taken a lot of heat for causing environmental damage, "shellfish farming actually helps clean the water," Wood says. Each oyster filters 60 gallons of water per day when the water is warm, Leggett says.

Legislators and a variety of nonprofit groups are getting behind oyster harvesting programs because they are so beneficial to the bay. This year, the Oyster Recovery Partnership in Annapolis joined with the state of Maryland, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Wildlife Federation, among other groups, to ensure the planting of 470 million oysters and the rehabilitation of 1,100 acres of reefs in the bay.

Farmers such White, Wood and the Croxtons are the first to capitalize on a Chesapeake oyster renaissance in fine-dining restaurants. How did they know their oysters would be well received? "People like what's local. Because what's local means that it's fresh," says Wood.

Although Wood's oysters are sold exclusively at upscale restaurants, the Croxtons' Rappahannocks, Olde Salts, Stingrays and Barcats are available to consumer through their Web site and their Shuck Truck catering operation. Should you get some, while you shuck, imagine that only 24 hours earlier the cousins were jumping from their Carolina Skiff to harvest them.

Now that's farm to table.

Melissa McCart writes the Counter Intelligence blog at http://www.melissamccart.wordpress.com.

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