Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tasting Virginia Chesapeake Bay Oysters with Oyster Producer Travis Craxton at the Rappahannock River, USA

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller with Owner Travis Croxton and Farm Manager Patrick Oliver

The Chesapeake Bay and Oysters

The Chesapeake Bay – the largest estuary of the USA - used to be an area, where oysters would flourish. Virginia and Maryland combined to harvest 30 - in some years even 40 - million pounds oysters every year. But since the 1960s, oyster production in the Chesapeake Bay has collapsed to less than 1 percent of what it used to be. The oyster’s habitat is dangerously polluted, its reefs overfished, its numbers decimated by a pair of ravaging diseases.

Efforts are underway to reverse this dire development. Virginia protects oysters with large sanctuaries in public waters but allows watermen to harvest them on a rotating basis about every two years. The state also strongly encourages private aquaculture, selling plots of riverbed or bay floor to oyster farmers for $1.50 an acre. A total of 93,000 acres of water bottom is leased for farming. Maryland is only beginning to develop aquaculture.

Pictures: At the merroir with Owner Travis Croxton

One option that is on the table to revive the oyster production in the Chesapeake Bay, but not yet pursued, is to allow the Pacific oyster to be produced in the Chesapeake Bay. For the different types of oysters that exist in the world, see below.

Travis Croxton – who I met recently at the Chesapeake Bay - and his business partner and cousin Ryon Croxton are among those innovative growers, who use aquaculture to produce quality oysters. Currently, there output reaches 4 million oysters per year. Overall, more than half of Virginia’s increase during the past years came from private aquaculture

American Institute of Wine Food (AIWF) Visit

Organized by Joe Del Balzo from the AIWF, I visited the farm of Travis Croxton at the Rappahannock River and enjoyed a three course tasting meal at their Oyster Bar “merroir”.

The AIWF is a non-profit organization founded by Julia Child, Robert Mondavi, Richard Graff and others in 1981 to advance the understanding, appreciation and quality of what we eat and drink in the USA.

We toured the facility, learned about the native species the Croxtons are so passionate about, sampled oysters, and enjoyed a wine and food pairing in the “merroir” tasting room.

4 Types of Oysters in the World

I distinguish 4 types of oysters.

The Pacific

Originally from Japan, the Pacific or Japanese oyster is the most widely cultured oyster in the world. It accounts for 75% of world production. In France, it has crowded out the Belon and now accounts for 99% of oyster production there. Gone are the days of the Belon in Paris. The Pacific oysters are marketed under a variety of names, often denoting their growing area. The Kumamoto is one of the most famous Pacific oysters. I tend to think of a Pacific oyster as a creamy oyster, with a mineral note.

The Olympia

The Olympia is a very small oyster seldom exceeding 2 inches. For comparison, in Massachusetts, oysters must be a minimum of 3 inches to be sold. Olympia is a native American oyster, which once flourished on the West Coast, before the Pacific took over. Olympias are hard to find today as they grow very slowly and are difficult to transport. They hold very little liquid and dry out quickly. The Olympia has a very full flavor with a distinct aftertaste.

The Atlantic

Another American native, there are many varieties of Atlantic oysters, such as the Malpeque from Prince Edward Island in Canada and the Blue Point from Long Island in New York State. Bluepoints were originally named for Blue Point, Long Island but now the term is generally applied to any Atlantic oyster two four inches long. These two are now the most common restaurant oysters in the US. Also called Eastern oyster, the Atlantic has a thick, elongated shell that ranges from 2 to 5 inches across. It's found along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico in the US.

The Belon

The Belon, or European Flat, is Europe’s native oyster. The Belons are round and shallow. That’s why they are called Flats. They are also not very liquid and dry out fast. They have a long history. They used to grow in Brittany, Normandy, England, Spain, Holland, Greece and the Black See. But a disease is wiping them out worldwide. The Flats from the Belon river in Brittany were at some point the connoisseur’s top choice and the name was soon adopted by all oyster growers, a bit like the Blue Points from Long Island. The Belon oyster grows in limited quantity in Maine on the rocks of the Damariscotta river bed.

Rappahannock River Oysters

The origins of Travis and Ryan Croxton’s company - Rappahannock River Oysters - can be traced all the way back to 1899. It was in that year that 24-year-old James Arthur Croxton, Jr., purchased five acres of leased river bottom in the Rappahannock River near Bowlers, Virginia. Today the company is run by James Arthur’s great-grandsons, Travis and Ryan Croxton.

Pictures: Rappahannock River

Touring the Oyster Farm

We toured the oyster farm with Farm Manager Patrick Oliver.

“Our oysters are grown from seed (1/8”) to market-size (3” plus) in trays in the water. This method allows us to produce a healthy, clean oyster by growing it up off of the bottom.

We're apt to brag that Rappahannock River Oysters grows only Crassostrea virginica, the Chesapeake Bay's native oyster. Our techniques for growing our celebrated bivalve have changed a little since Rappahannock River Oysters's early days. Today our oysters are grown "off bottom," positioned squarely in the water column where food quality and quantity are greatly improved. Not only do the oysters grow faster, they grow richer, plumper, and rounder - and all under our watchful eye. We monitor salt and temperature levels, guard against predators, cull out slow growers and misshapen shells - all to ensure that the customer gets a consistently healthy, attractive, and succulent oyster.”

Pictures: Farm Manager Patrick Oliver Explaining the Farm Operations

The Oysters we Tasted

We tasted 3 kinds of oysters.

Pictures: Oysters on the Half Shell


Location: Topping, Virginia
Salt Range: 13-17 ppt.
Species: Crassostrea virginica (native)
Grow-out Method: Aquaculture

Taste Profile: Deep cupped and mineral rich, with an understated saltiness that lets the oyster's natural flavor come though, our Rappahannocks offer up a sweet, buttery, full-bodied taste with a refreshingly clean, crisp finish. It's the very same oyster we started growing in 1899.


Location: Ware Neck, Virginia
Salt Range: 17-22 ppt.
Species: Crassostrea virginica (native)
Grow-out Method: Aquaculture

Taste Profile: Drawn from the pristine waters of Mobjack Bay, Stingrays are the quintessential Chesapeake Bay oyster: sweet and mildly briny with a clean, crisp finish. Named after the Bay oyster's chief predator, these Stingrays bite back!

Olde Salt

Location: Chincoteague Bay, Virginia
Salt Range: 28-33 ppt.
Species: Crassostrea virginica (native)
Grow-out Method: Aquaculture

Taste Profile: The truest taste of the ocean, our Olde Salt oyster brings together a bold sea-side brininess with a smooth, clean follow-through. Grown off the coast of Chincoteague (think Misty), our Olde Salt oyster is more than a classic, it’s a legend.

Merroir Tasting Menu with Wine Paired by Sommelier Joe Del Balzo

We had a wonderful meal, paired with wines suggested and introduced by Joe Del Balzo.

Pictures: Joe Del Balzo

Oyster on the 1⁄2 Shell Trio featuring Olde Salts, Rappahannock River, and Sting Ray

Chesapeake Bay Crabcake, Creole Remoulade Sauce, Rustic Italian Bread

Lamb ‘n Clam Stew, featuring Border Springs Farm lamb and our Olde Salt clams 


Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market in Washington DC

Before leaving “merroir” and heading back to Washington DC, Travis Croxton told us about his latest project, the Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market in Washington DC near Gallaudet University. I have not yet been there, but at the center of it is a 20-seat bar, flanked by a communal table and patio seating. Watching over the tiny open kitchen for the moment is Dylan Fultineer. A veteran of the esteemed Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Blackbird in Chicago, Fultineer is helping out until he starts cooking at the soon-to-open Rappahannock, a 3,000-square-foot restaurant in Richmond and another venture by the Croxton cousins.

The regular selection of raw oysters ($2 each) includes Rappahannocks, Stingrays and Old Salts. Down the road, the restaurateur anticipates offering “guest oysters” from elsewhere in the country. In addition, the menu includes steamed Olde Salt clams, oyster chowder with bacon, crab cakes, and grilled tuna loin with local peppers, tomatoes, and mojo de ajo. Travis Croxton said they plan to change the menu seasonally.

Earlier AIWF Events

Earlier AIWF events about which I have reported on schiller-wine include:

3 German Winemakers – Dr. Fischer, Fitz-Ritter and G.A. Schneider – and the American Institute for Wine and Food (AIWF) at the L2 Lounge in Washington DC, USA

Wine and Crab Cakes: Amy Brandwein from Casa Nonna and Chris Clime from PassionFish win the 6th Annual Crab Cake Competition in Washington DC, USA

schiller-wine: Related Postings

Fine Wine and Fine Oysters in Madagascar: Oysters from Fort Dauphin and Wine from Clos Nomena

In the Glass: 2007 Rheinhessen with Oysters at the Ten Bells in the Lower East Side in Manhattan

New Hampshire, US: Cheese ... Lobster and Oysters ... and Wine!

A Plateau des Fruits de Mer and a Pessac-Leognan Wine in Bordeaux City, France

Oysters and Wine

The Best Wines for US West Coast and Other Oysters

West Coast Oysters and Wine with Jon Rowley in Seattle, USA

Maryland Crabs and Wine, USA

Wine and Crab Cakes: Amy Brandwein from Casa Nonna and Chris Clime from PassionFish win the 6th Annual Crab Cake Competition in Washington DC, USA

In the Glass: A Rust en Vrede 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon With South African Oysters in Stellenbosch

A Plateau des Fruits de Mer and a Pessac-Leognan Wine in Bordeaux City, France

Schiller's World of Seafood

In the Glass: A Rust en Vrede 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon With South African Oysters in Stellenbosch

Oysters - and Wine - at Zuni Café in San Francisco, USA

The 2012 Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition - 10 Oyster Wines


  1. Christian – it’s a great post –thanks so much for profiling us. Hope to see you in DC soon, or in Richmond when we open Rappahannock!


    Travis Croxton
    Owner, Rappahannock River Oysters, LLC

  2. Ah, this looks like a delicious day - great post Christian! We should plan to meet up at RRO soon!

  3. Frank, or at their new oyster bar in Washington DC or at their soon to be opened restaurant in Richmond.

  4. thanks for sharing.

  5. The Rapahannock Oyster Bar at Union Station is one of the 40 must eats http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/essential-eats-2013-the-40-dishes-every-washingtonian-must-try/2013/03/04/62be9b02-84bf-11e2-9d71-f0feafdd1394_gallery.html#photo=40 in the Washington DC area.