Oysters: Shuckin’ and servin’
Oyster season is here! In the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula this is a time to celebrate and scarf down the local delicacy both at home and at numerous festivals. For those visitors who may not know all the important information about this tasty morsel, here is a brief lesson.
There are countless types of oysters out there says Rappahannock River Oyster’s Ryan Croxton, but in terms of species, there are only five available in the U.S. and only two of those are native to America. By law, the East Coast is only allowed to grow the native species.
In his book, The Geography of Oysters, Rowan Jacobson named Rappahannock oysters to his list of “A Dozen Oysters You Should Know” due to their smooth and sweet taste profile.
Traditionally, oysters are eaten in months that have an “r” in them - September through April. This rule of thumb harkens back to days when refrigeration was suspect or nonexistent. Fortunately for modern-day oyster connoisseurs, there are regulations in place that ensure that a shellfish is maintained at under 45 degrees until it reaches your plate.
“They’re about as seasonal as cattle,” said Croxton, “Every month now has an ‘r’ in it.”
At Rappahannock River Oysters, the most popular brands are the sweet Rappahannocks, mild Stingrays, and the ocean-brine Olde Salts.
Oysters can be purchased whole or pre-shucked by the pint, quart or gallon. If purchased whole, the oysters must be shucked before consuming, which can be a little tricky.
“It’s finesse rather than force,” said Croxton.
Peter Woods, the executive chef at Merroir, the Rappahannock River Oysters’ tasting room, offers a step-by-step guide.
- First, make sure the cup side of the oyster is face down so its liquors stay inside the shell.
- Next, cover the shell with your hand and a towel to keep it tightly closed.
- While keeping fingers close to the hinge of the oyster, use a knife to cut through the hinge.
- Apply leverage to the shell and pry until the shell pops open.
- Lift off the top shell and remove any loose pieces of the shell.
- Sweep your knife under the meat to disconnect it from the shell.
- Roll the meat over in its shell and you’re done!
Although oysters are best when cooked as soon as possible, they can be stored for two to three days when kept in the coolest area of the refrigerator.
If you’ve purchased oysters but are not planning on serving them right away, Recipes.com offers some advice. Before refrigeration, oyster shells should be cleaned with a kitchen brush under cool running water and placed in a bowl covered with a damp towel. Freshly shucked oysters should be submerged in their own liquor and stored in the refrigerator for up to two days. Live oysters should never be stored in air tight containers or they will die.
Once you’re ready to prepare your oysters, the possibilities are endless.
“Not to get all Bubba Gump on you, but you can grill them, fry them, sauté them, broil them, steam them, stew them, skewer them, drop them in a shot of vodka/beer/bloody mary … just about anything,” said Croxton.
Woods says one of his favorite oyster recipes is a ham and oyster pot pie.
Like most oyster purists Croxton prefers his oysters raw, insisting that the less you do to them, the better.
However you like them, there are a few guidelines for oyster serving and preparation:
- Raw oysters should always be served chilled on a bed of ice.
- Shucking is easier if you toss them in the freezer for about ten to 15 minutes to relax the muscles of the oysters.
- Oysters are salty by nature, so most recipes using oysters will not need to be salted.
- Choose freshly-shucked oysters for broiling, smoking, or baking on the half-shell.
- As with many foods, size and age make a difference—smaller and younger oysters will most likely be more tender.
- Cook oysters gently to avoid turning them into a rubbery, chewy waste of good shellfish. When the edges begin to curl, they’ve had enough heat.
Just in case you needed another reason to suck down some oysters, it might be worth mentioning that these shellfish help the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters are a lynch-pin species, says Croxton, meaning that if we lose them, the whole system could crumble. Each oyster planted will filter 50 to 60 gallons of water a day, in addition to producing millions of larvae that will develop into future wild oysters. As they filter the water, removing excess algae, sunlight can start penetrating the formerly opaque water and spur grasses, which in turn produce oxygen and hold down shifting soils.
“If you’re looking for guilt free gluttony, you’ve met your match. The more you eat, the more we have to plant. And the more we plant, the better off the Bay is,” said Croxton.
There you have it, everything you need to know about oysters in a nut—err—oyster shell!
by Shannon Rice
|Merroir Tasting Room is a gourmet oyster tasting house featuring the celebrated farms of Rappahannock River Oyster Company.|
|Merroir visitors can view their oysters being harvested right on site.|
For those who have been itching to jump onto the oyster bandwagon but are still intimidated by the delicacy, Merroir Tasting Room in Topping provides a tasty opportunity.
“If you like farm-to-fork style eating, you’ll love this,” says executive chef Peter Woods.
Located at Locklies Marina on the Rappahannock River, Merroir is a gourmet oyster tasting house featuring the celebrated farms of Rappahannock River Oyster Company, also on the marina site.
The tasting room has four craft brews on tap as well as a dozen different wines, champagne and sangria.
For $10, visitors can indulge in samplings of the RROC’s award-winning oysters paired with local craft brews or wine before they decide to purchase some to take home.
Rappahannock, Stingray and Olde Salt oysters are served with any of the four mignonettes or sauces created in-house by chef Woods.
Other items served at Merroir include clams, steamed shrimp and crab cakes.
Café and picnic tables outside the tasting room provide a picturesque view of the very waters the oysters came from.
“You can’t get any fresher than this,” says Woods.
In addition to the oysters, Merroir retails every bottle of wine and beer it serves.
Merroir is at 784 Locklies Creek Road in Topping and is open from noon to 8 p.m. weekdays and noon to 9 p.m. weekends.