An Interview with the Owners of Rappahannock Oyster Company
Where can you get the best oysters during each season? What beverages do they pair best with? And what in the world is a “triploid” oyster? There’s more to know about these tasty mollusks than how to shuck and devour them. Brush up on your oyster knowledge with a few tidbits from some of the experts.
Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton are fourth generation co-owners of their family’s oyster business, Rappahannock Oyster Company. When the company opened its doors in 2001, Chesapeake Bay oyster harvesting was at an all time low and the Croxton’s mission was simple. Resurrect the Bay oyster and put Virginia oyster production back on the map. Along with other oyster farmers, chefs, patrons, and energized locals, Chesapeake oysters have since regained their popularity and the Croxtons’ business is thriving.
Building upon their success, the duo ventured into the restaurant business and opened Merroir in 2011, a tasting room at their oyster farm in Topping, Virginia. That same year, The Rappahannock Oyster Bar opened in Washington, DC, the praises of which have since been sung by Thrillist, Travel & Leisure, and Food & Wine. Most recently the Croxtons opened Rapp Session in Richmond, Virginia.
What is the “R” month rule and should it be followed? The “R” month rule was created in the years before refrigeration was widely available. Our grandfather would send oysters via train as far west as San Francisco in the winter months, but in the summer they wouldn’t even make it to Richmond before the ice melted. The other issue is that oysters spawn in the summertime when the water temp hits 75F, making them stringier, not as meaty, and weaker, with shorter shelf lives. With the advent of the “triploid” oyster, an oyster with an extra chromosome that prevents it from breeding, oysters can now be enjoyed year-round. Most oysters that consumers eat during the summer are triploid oysters, and our sales of oysters are higher in the summer months than any other.
How do oysters grow and where do they live? Oysters grow by filtering nutrients from algae that flows through its gills. Oysters live in most estuaries and any other saltwater body. They require about 8ppt (parts per thousand) of salinity to live and grow, but most oysters live within the range of 15ppt (riverside) to 35ppt (oceanside). Oysters create their own shell made of calcium, and can grow for many years.
What determines an oyster’s taste? An oyster’s taste is developed from a concept called “merroir.” A take on “terroir” with wine, “merroir” means that oysters take on the flavor characteristics of the water environment in which they are grown. The minerality of the water, the type of algae, and the salinity are all factors contribute to its flavor. To celebrate the nuanced flavor from multiple sites around the Chesapeake Bay, we named our first restaurant Merroir, which is located on the bank of the Rappahannock River overlooking our major oyster farm.
What’s the best way to shuck an oyster? There are two ways. One is through the hinge and one is the Chesapeake Bay stabbing method. With the hinge method, use a thick-bladed oyster knife and insert it at the hinge of the oyster—the pointed tip. Twist the knife to pop the hinge, then slide the knife along the inside of the shell to cut the adductor muscle holding the oyster shut and open the oyster. For the stabbing method, slide a thin-bladed oyster knife into the wide end of the oyster, and scrape along the inside to sever the adductor muscle.
What beverages pair well with oysters? Wine, beer, champagne and cocktails are all great beverage pairings for oysters. We recommend a crisp and slightly effervescent vinho verde or a citrusy gruner veltliner with sweet, buttery oysters like Rappahannocks, and then cold beer with the super salty Olde Salts (Oceanside oysters). Lagers and pilsners pair best with oysters, as they’re clean and crisp and won’t overpower the flavor of the oyster. And of course, any bubbly such as cava, prosecco, sparkling, or champagne make eating oysters even more fun.
Is there any special oyster terminology people should know? The folks at Jax Fish House in Colorado call shucking oysters “poppin’ rocks,” which we like. Other terminology includes things we’ve talked about such as salinity, parts per thousand, and merroir.
What is a favorite summer oyster recipe? Oysters don’t only have to be eaten raw. They can also be grilled or steamed. We love doing a bourbon barbecue brown butter sauce on our grilled Rappahannocks. In terms of raw, adding some trout roe and granita to the oysters creates a more of a fizzle and livelier experience than eating them plain.
Where are the best places to buy oysters throughout the year? Aside from our awesome website, www.rroysters.com, Whole Foods and other markets have started to get into having a great oyster program. Just be sure to ask your fishmonger to look at the back of the shellfish tag so that you can see the harvest date. You want to take oysters home that have been harvested within the last seven days, preferably less.