By Patrick Evans-Hylton
Although the 45th Annual Norfolk Harborfest: Music, Food & Maritime Festival has been cancelled due to the coronavirus, the iconic festival will live in spirit this year through a series of digital content throughout the June 11-13 weekend. For more on Norfolk Festevents, visit www.Festevents.org
Celebrate the tastes and traditions of Harborfest and the rich and history of region by enjoying perhaps Coastal Virginia’s best-loved culinary calling card, oysters.
The history of oysters in America is forever and indelibly linked to the history of Virginia.
On April 26, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport and the Virginia Company colonists, including 104 men and boys, had been crammed in three small ships for almost five months sailing from England, landed at present day Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.
Their charter from King James I instructed them to find a water route to Asia, gold, and other riches.
There wasn’t a shortcut to Shanghai, nor any precious metals, but what they did find and wrote about is one of the longest, most enduring and most satisfying riches of all: an abundance of seafood.
“The main river [James] abounds with sturgeon, very large and excellent good, having also at the mouth of every brook and in every creek both store and exceedingly good fish of divers kinds. In the large sounds near the sea are multitudes of fish, banks of oysters …”
“LARGE AND DELICATE IN TASTE”
The day after landing at Cape Henry, a group, which included diarist George Percy, begin to explore, marching “eight miles up into the land,” probably around the present site of Lynnhaven Bay.
There, Percy writes,
“We came to a place where they (the Native Americans) had made a great fire, and had been newly roasting Oysters. When they perceived our coming, they fled away to the mountains (large sand dunes), and left many of the Oysters in the fire. We eat some of the Oysters, which were very large and delicate in taste.”
That’s the first written record of prepared food in what would become English-speaking America; the first food review, if you will, and it seems the roasted Lynnhaven oysters were a critics choice. More than 400 years later they still are.
Percy didn’t say how big the oyster were, but William Strachey did in 1612, as well as other ways they were enjoyed:
“Oysters there, be in whole banks and beds, and those of the best I have seen some thirteen inches long. The savages used to boil oysters and mussels together and with the broth they make a good spoon meat, thickened with flour of their wheat (corn) and it is a great thrift and husbandry with them to hang the oysters upon strings … and dried in the smoke, thereby preserve them all the year.”
The English were familiar with oysters: they had been enjoyed in England for centuries, but these were something special, and they began harvesting them for regular meals.
At the time the colonists gathered oysters in boats, rowing out to reefs that rose above the waterline, or they waded into the water and gathered them either by hand or with rakes.
The oyster trade had its boom in the mid-to-late 19th century, with restaurants around the globe serving “World Famous Lynnhaven Oysters.” The taste for oysters never waned, but often beds had reduced capacity or were closed altogether in parts of the 20th century largely due to water pollution.
By the 2000s, Virginia oysters made a comeback, and the Commonwealth declared itself the East Coast Oyster Capital. Today there are scores of oystermen harvesting the beautiful bivalves across Coastal Virginia in eight distinct oyster growing regions.
WHAT MAKES COASTAL VIRGINIA OYSTERS UNIQUE
Coastal Virginia has eight distinct oyster-growing districts. Oysters nestled in the seasides are kissed with bold salinity, while those found in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are sweeter and creamier.
The diversity of oysters can not be overstated, from the burst of salt in bivavles harvested along the Atlantic coastline that hugs the Eastern Shore from Chinocteague southward to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Region 1. After the pop of salinity, the oyster mellows, finishing into a creamy, buttery taste.
In Region 7, which includes the historic Lynnhaven Bay, oysters here are kissed with both waters with salt from the ocean and freshwater running down from the land via ancient tributaries. No surprise here, then, that these bivalves have a nice mix of both: these are salty oysters, but there’s an underlying sweetness that has been habit forming for four centuries.
By contrast, when you head up to Region 4 in the upper Chesapeake Bay, the furtherest away from the brine of the Atlantic, the oysters here are rich and sweet and possess a light, creamy taste.
Some oysters are marketed by a proprietary name, such as Big Island, Olde Salts, Pleasure House, or Sewansecott. Others are just referenced generically, such as baysides, Chincoteague, Lynnhavens, or seasides.
The oyster growing regions are:
+ Region 1 Seaside, strong saltiness
+ Region 2 Upper Bay Eastern Shore, moderate saltiness
+ Region 3 Lower Bay Eastern Shore, very noticeable saltiness
+ Region 4 Upper Bay Western Shore, moderate saltiness
+ Region 5 Middle Bay Western Shore, moderate saltiness
+ Region 6 Lower Bay Western Shore, moderate saltiness
+ Region 7 Tidewater, very noticeable saltiness
+ Region 8 Tangier/Middle Chesapeake Bay, moderate saltiness
Visit the regions, including breweries, restaurants, shops, wineries, and more with ties to Virginia’s rich oyster history on the Virginia Oyster Trail.
For more on Virginia oysters, visit VirginiaOysters.org
For more on the Virginia Oyster Trail, visit VirginiaOysterTrail.com
HOW TO OPEN AN OYSTER 101
Getting to an oyster seems like an arduous task, what with using a special knife – an oyster knife – and all that twisting and popping of the shell. But it doesn’t have to be if you follow our simple steps. And remember, practice makes perfect; the more you shuck, the better you’ll be at it, and of course the homework is pretty darn tasty.
+ Open the oyster just before eating or cooking it. Start by examining the oyster; if the shell is cracked or open slightly, discard it. Scrub the oyster under cold, running water.
+ Place the oyster, hinge side facing you, on a thick, clean kitchen towel, doubled, and sit on a stable surface or hold in the palm of the hand opposite the one you in which you will hold the oyster knife.
+ The cup, or deep side of the oyster should be on the bottom and the flat lid should be on top; this will keep the oyster liquor in the shell. Grab your oyster knife – a knife specifically for this purpose. It has a short, stout blade and large handle; do not use another knife for opening oysters.
+ If you are not experienced at shucking oysters, wear a pair of work gloves. Firmly grasp the oyster knife and place on the seam of the hinge, gradually pushing in and working it back and forth. Do not apply too much force and do not push in too far or it will cut the oyster.
+ Twist the blade of the oyster knife back and forth until there is a slight pop and the top of the oyster is released. Run the knife in one solid motion upward and directly along the shell to cut through the adductor muscle, which holds the oyster body to the shell. Similarly, run the blade under the oyster, too, to free the meat.
+ Discard the top lid and remove any small bits of shell from the oyster meat. Place opened oysters on a lidded platter filled with crushed ice to keep them chilled and serve immediately.
HOW TO EAT AN OYSTER 101
While we love a good decadent Oyster Rockefeller, golden fried fried oyster po’ boy or rich oyster stew, we really love them raw. It’s only then that you’ll get a full appreciation for the nuance of flavors in that tiny little bivalve.
Here’s how to be a Virginia oyster expert, in five easy steps:
+ Hold the oyster cup to your lips and let the oyster and its liquor slide into your mouth.
+ Don’t just slurp it down – you’ll miss the flavor profile that way.
+ Chew a bit. Hold it in your mouth; start to become aware of the flavors. Chew a bit more.
+ Look for notes of butter, cream, minerals, salt, sweet. Notice how long the flavor lingers on the tongue.
+ Repeat, at least a dozen times.
Ready to try some oysters for yourself? Here are a few of our favorite oyster recipes to get you started. Also check out our recipe for an Oyster Po Boy Sandwich along with some picnic tips and tricks here: http://bit.ly/VAEATSOysterPoBoy
Roasted Virginia Oysters with Smoldering Fuse Dipping Sauce
A classic recipe with a nod to the way English settlers first ate oysters here in 1607. The sauce pays homage to the pirates that once plied Virginia waters, in particular Blackbeard, who made himself even more imposing as he raided ships with lit fuses tied with red ribbon to his thick black beard.
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup hot sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 dozen Virginia oysters, scrubbed and rinsed
Make the sauce. hisk the butter, hot sauce, lemon juice, and pepper together in a medium bowl until combined. Set aside.
Roast the oysters. Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high. Place the oysters, flat-side up, on the grill and grill for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the shells open at least a quarter-inch.
Remove the oysters from the grill with tongs and, with a gloved hand, open the shells with an oyster knife, being care- ful not to spill any juices. Discard the empty top shell and slide the oyster knife under the meat to release; arrange the oysters on a serving plate. Serve immediately with sauce for dipping.
Yields 4 servings
If you’d like more oyster recipes, email Patrick@VirginiaEatsAndDrinks.com with “Oyster Recipes” as the subject
Patrick Evans-Hylton is Norfolk Festevents’ culinary advisor, a Johnson & Wales-trained chef and an award-winning food journalist covering tasty trends since 1995 in print, broadcast and electronic media. He is publisher of VirginiaEatsAndDrinks.com
Join the Virginia Eats + Drinks Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/VirginiaEatsAndDrinks
Portions of this post appeared in other previously published articles, including my book, Dishing Up Virginia.
photo | Shutterstock