“There’s nothing quite like an oyster,” says Travis Croxton. “You pluck it from the sea, shuck it and eat it. You don’t need spices or sauces.  It’s perfect just the way it is.”

Travis should know. He’s one of the people who is bringing back craft Virginia oysters and making them among the tastiest and most famous shellfish in America.  Travis is co-owner with his cousin, Ryan, of the Rappahannock Oyster Co., one of the leaders of a new craft industry --  aquaculture.  We all know agriculture, people who grow food from land, but aquaculture is the new kid on the block – people who grow food from water. And like other craft food producers, aquaculture farmers live by the philosophy of “good food, grown well.”

Photo Credit: Todd Wright, @toddwrightphoto

Oyster farming goes back to Roman times and has been the principal way oysters are harvested in France since 1860. But in Virginia, “oyster gardening” just wasn’t necessary until recent times.  That’s because the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America (a place where fresh water runs into the sea) and is very shallow. The old joke is, if your boat sinks in the Chesapeake, just get out and walk back to shore.

This shallowness means the sun penetrates the water, allowing grasses to grow and filling the bay with nutrients for fish, crab, and oysters. When the first colonists arrived in Virginia in 1607, the waters of the bay were teeming with delicious things to eat, literally trillions of oysters, which were named Crassostrea virginica, in honor of Virginia. It is the only oyster that it is legal to grow on the East Coast.

Oysters Through Virginia’s History

Following the Civil War, when the South was poor, Virginia oyster farming became the equivalent of a gold rush. By the 1890s, half the world’s supply of oysters came from Virginia, some 24 million bushels in the record year. Virginia oysters were canned and shipped around the world. Oystering was so profitable that there were even “Oyster Pirates,” who would steal other people’s oyster beds. Armed ships patrolled the Chesapeake Bay and there were pitched battles between oystermen and pirates, including three women pirates who managed to outsail the navy and escape aboard their boat, The Dancing Molly.

But the glory days of oystering were ending. The take-all-you-can-get farming practice of dredging the sea bottom and fishing with tongs was not sustainable. By 1899, Virginia realized they had a problem with decreasing numbers of oysters and they began leasing land to those who would grow oysters rather than just dredge them from public reefs. James Croxton leased two acres of Rappahannock River bottom, and collecting wild spat (baby oysters) from reefs, he began growing them on his leased river bottom to be harvested later with crude tongs or by dredging.

Photo Credit: Rachel Stevens

By the 1960s, some 5-7 million bushels of oysters were still being harvested, but through disease, hurricanes, and over-fishing, the bottom fell out. By 2001, oyster harvesting in Virginia collapsed to just 23,000 bushels, and it was estimated that only one percent of the historic population of oysters still survived.

James Croxton’s two-acre lease on the Rappahannock had been expanded by his son Bill to more than 200 acres, but with the oyster industry collapsing, no one really wanted the leases.  That’s where cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton stepped in.  They were intrigued by the idea of keeping the family business alive. However, they knew nothing about oyster farming. So, like any Gen-Xers, they “Googled” it and discovered there was a whole new world exploding in the craft oyster farming business.

Photo Credit: Todd Wright, @toddwrightphoto

Instead of harvesting oysters from the sea bottom, new aquaculture farmers were putting spat (baby oysters) in cages on six-inch legs, so grasses would grow underneath and around them, providing more nutrients. The cages would be placed underwater so they would not be an eyesore from land, but they could be easily removed from the water with hydraulic lifts without disturbing the bottom.

Spat could be produced year-round by putting oysters in warm water, “tricking” them into thinking it was mating season. Because spat is so vulnerable in the sea, oysters wildly over produce spat. You can hold thousands of spat in your hands, so large numbers of spat can be grown in tanks until they are large enough for the cages. Over time, the cages can be periodically pulled from the sea for the growing oysters to be separated by size until they are 18-24 months old and large enough for harvesting.

Photo Credit: Todd Wright, @toddwrightphoto

Meanwhile, while growing underwater in cages, the oysters also send natural spat out into the sea, helping to restore Virginia’s wild oyster population. It’s a “win-win” for the environment and for consumers who love tasty oysters year-round.

In March of 2002, Ryan and Travis Croxton planted their first 3,000 oysters. By 2007, their oysters had gained fame and were being served in oyster bars in many of America’s greatest restaurants. The Croxtons (and some three-dozen other small craft Virginia oyster farmers) have saved the industry and grown the reputation of Virginia oysters, with some $4 million of oysters (a half million pounds) sold last year alone. The Croxtons have also opened their own restaurants in Richmond, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Charleston, and ship their oysters and clams all around the world.

What Makes Virginia Oysters so Delicious?

Oysters are bottom filters, filtering enormous amounts of water, up to 24-96 liters, a day. So what they eat, what waters they are in, what nutrients are in the water, how salty it is, how they are grown, and the method they are harvested are all factors that will influence flavor. It is exactly like how grapes for fine wines are influenced by the quality of the soil, sunlight, rain, drainage, temperature, and other factors. The French call this “terroir” – the “tasting of the earth,” since the earth plays such a key role in the final wine product.

Photo Credit: Todd Wright, @toddwrightphoto

So when the Croxtons opened their first oyster tasting room, of course, it had to be named Merrior, a “tasting of the sea,” giving credit to the crucial factors that influence an oyster’s taste.   Today, Merroir is a small, informal place of outdoor tables, with a tiny open-air bar and dining room. It sits just across the water from Topping and the ramshackle restaurant is surrounded by oyster cages, sea views, squawking seagulls, boats coming and going, docks, and a picturesque oyster shack. And, of course, by throngs of people who have discovered that this hole-in-the-wall has become one of the most famous oyster tasting rooms on the east coast.

Everything on the menu is served raw or cooked on an outdoor grill in small-plate size dishes paired with craft brews or world-famous wines. You go to a counter, place your order, and wait for your name to be called to pick up raw oysters, roasted oysters, BBQ butter oysters, rosemary steamed clams, steamed shrimp, an oyster po’ boy, the grilled fish of the day, or a Stuffin Muffin made with oyster stuffing and Benton’s Bacon, covered with a peppercorn cream sauce. The ordering process couldn’t be simpler, while deciding what to order is the tough choice.

Photo Credit: Rich Grant, @richgrantdenver

Among the choices is the signature Rappahannock River oysters, raised where the river comes into the bay. "Rappahannock" is translated from the Algonquin language to mean, "Place where the water comes back" (i.e., a river moved by the tides). The river water tumbles down 195 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains through 65 percent forest and 35 percent crops before it comes into the sea, and this blend of fresh and salty water produces Rappahannock oysters that are sweet, buttery, crisp, and full-bodied.

Photo Credit: Rich Grant, @richgrantdenver

The Rochambeau oysters (named after the French General from Yorktown in the Revolutionary War) come from farther out at sea, but still near where fresh water from the York River spills into the bay. They are called the “Goldilocks oysters,” because they have a far greater bite of salt, but also have a taste associated with oysters near fresh water.

Photo Credit: Todd Wright, @toddwrightphoto

Olde Salt oysters are the aristocrats. They come from the coastal island of Chincoteague, known for its wild horses. But there are no fresh water sources here, so these “fruits de mar” give the truest taste of the sea.

The Virginia Oyster Trail


Just like regions of France have become associated with a certain grape and style of wine (think Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis) so too there are eight regions in Virginia that are identified with different flavor oysters, depending on their proximity to rivers and the sea. Today, they are connected by The Virginia Oyster Trail, which will expose you to 516 places to visit (restaurants, cute towns, B&Bs, chefs, bike trails, scenic cruises, oyster boats, walks, craft breweries, and so much more) and to 28 Virginia annual events celebrating … what else?  Oysters!

And nothing goes better with oysters than a Virginia wine or craft beer. Just taking the area around Irvington as an example, where within a few minutes you can experience:

The Tides Inn

Photo Courtesy of the Tides Inn

In 1947, “Big Steve” and “Miss Ann” Stephens purchased some land on a high point overlooking Carter’s Creek, an inlet to the Chesapeake Bay, and without any experience, decided to open a hotel. They made the right choice. Today, The Tides is a famous slice of Old Virginia luxury and relaxation with 70 guest rooms and suites, three restaurants, a golf course, and the most perfect terrace in the world to have Bloody Mary’s and breakfast. 

Or sign up for the “Chesapeake Gold” oyster ecology tour; guided by the Tides Inn ecologist, you can learn why oysters are the keystone species of the Chesapeake Bay and why they are ecologically essential for the health of the bay, filtering water and providing an essential habitat for hundreds of species. You will climb aboard a traditional watermen’s boat, take an oyster cage out to the “farm,” pull up a cage, and investigate it back at Waterman’s Pier. Upon return to the shore, you will learn about oyster reproduction, how to grade oysters and, of course, taste the legendary “Chesapeake gold.” You can even walk along an oyster reef that is being built beside the property from oyster shells.

The Hope & Glory Inn

Photo Credit: Rich Grant, @richgrantdenver

Irvington is a pleasant little place with eight restaurants and a handful of boutique shops. Sitting on one edge of a green downtown park is the Steamboat Era Museum, which describes the period beginning in 1813 when up to 600 steamboats carried passengers, freight, and oysters bound for railroads and ships to bring them to the rest of the world.  The shoreline of Chesapeake Bay is 11,684 miles and contained more than 300 steamboat stops! While everyone is familiar with steamboats sailing up and down the Mississippi, the same thing happened in the Chesapeake, and the museum tells the amazing story in a museum centered around the pilot house of the old steamboat, Potomac. Especially interesting is a section about the oyster pirate wars.

Photo Credit: Rich Grant, @richgrantdenver

On the other side of the green in Irvington is the Hope & Glory Inn. In 1889, this was the Chesapeake Male & Female Academy, which very properly had two front doors (one for boys and one for girls) and 450 students.

In 1995, Peggy and Dudley Patteson took it over and transformed the space into what is now one of the most acclaimed inns on the Northern Neck of Virginia, with raves from the New York Times and Travel & Leisure. With six rooms in the historic building and six cottages on a brick-lined path through a garden in the back, the Hope & Glory is a luxurious retreat with private patios, a secluded pool, gardens, songbirds singing in the trees, soft robes, and the finest linen sheets, and most incredible of all, an outdoor garden bath. Yes – there is a private outdoor claw-foot tub with a shower head the size of a hub cap, flickering candles, and strings of white lights, all tucked away on a curving brick path, where you can bathe under the stars listening to Ella Fitzgerald surrounded by the scent of blossoming honeysuckle.