Legend has it that the first settlers to eat an oyster in the New World were Captain John Smith and those he sailed with in 1607 when they first landed in what is now Virginia Beach. A group of Native Americans were having an oyster roast and abandoned their meal when the settlers appeared. Probably desperate for a fresh protein source after a long voyage, the settlers took their first bite of an oyster. It was a Virginia oyster and the beginning of a historic love affair.
Many people may be surprised to learn that the market for oyster tourism has exploded in Virginia. The state has seven different regions that contribute to high-quality oysters of different flavors and characteristics based upon the merroir or waters in which they are raised (similar to terroir in viniculture). There’s actually a Virginia Oyster Trail where ostreaphiles (oyster lovers) can learn about this amazing shellfish, lodge near an oyster farm, purchase oyster-related artworks and, of course, taste them. People come from all over the world to experience this epicurean delight.
Along the Oyster Trail, you’ll learn that the oyster is a remarkable little creature. It is essential for the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other local waterways because each adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water in a day. Interestingly, it’s believed that oysters were able to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay every 24 hours when they were at their peak population centuries ago. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate and naturally work to balance the pH of water by reducing the water’s acid levels. Plus, they eat and process nutrients that feed harmful algae thereby controlling algae blooms that destroy other life forms such as fish and bay grasses. And much like coral reefs, the seeds (baby oysters) build their reefs upon the remaining shells of oysters before them. Even fish populations benefit from the protection offered by oyster reefs. That is why Virginia Beach restaurants overwhelmingly participate in the oyster shell recycling program. After restaurant patrons enjoy the succulent bivalve, the shells are returned to the water to aid in the establishment of new oyster reefs. So, not only is the oyster very sustainable, but it is truly beneficial to its habitat.
Here in Virginia Beach, we’re especially fortunate to have the famous Lynnhaven oyster. This specific type of oyster was desired by European royalty and American aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s now available to everyone, especially through the efforts of oystermen and women including Chris Ludford and his family-run business, Pleasure House Oysters. For a truly unique adventure, join Ludford and his staff as they tend to their reefs in the Lynnhaven River. His company features a couple of different boat tours that not only educate, but also showcase these prized oysters. Try the Chef’s Table tour where you actually dine IN the Lynnhaven River! It’s an experience like no other and an excellent way to sample the delicate flavor of the mighty Virginia oyster.