Our oyster ground is in Old Plantation Inlet, the southernmost Inlet on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. As a result, the waters of Old Plantation are incredibly clean, clear, and salty. Along with the fact that the Inlet is minimally populated, relatively shallow, and has a sandy rather than muddy bottom, this makes it one of the best oyster and clam growing locations on the entire East Coast. In fact, although many areas on the Atlantic Coast take 3 to 4 years to grow an oyster to market size, due to the overabundance of food and ideal growing conditions, in Old Plantation it can be done in just 9 or 10 months.
The flavor of an oyster is complex and layered, but the most important components are salinity level and sugar content. Both are largely a reflection of where the oyster is grown, but the sweetness is also influenced by the grower’s husbandry techniques, and most importantly, the time of year. Our oysters have a level of salinity that is high but not overwhelming, with a sweet, buttery flavor and a finish reminiscent of the open ocean. Many people with an educated taste in oysters have told us that they are the best they’ve ever had.
The first step towards farming a great oyster involves attaining the best possible seed from a reputable hatchery. Oysters in our region have a lot to contend with in modern times; resident diseases like MSX and Dermo, radical swings in water temperature throughout the year, Polydora worms and Yellow Sponge attempting to bore into their shells, and short-nosed rays waiting to eat any oyster that isn’t protected. Proper husbandry practices can overcome many of these obstacles, but a lot depends on the basic genetics of the oyster itself. It determines their growth rate, how they respond to different water temperatures, and how susceptible they are to endemic viruses. There’s a lot of cheap oyster seed out there, but it’s well worth it to pay more for the best seed you can find.
Tumbling oysters frequently is the most important thing one can do towards crafting a top quality oyster. It does several things at once. First, it chips off the white outer edge of the oyster, the growing edge, and encourages it to grow a deeper cup and a more rounded shape. Much like pruning a fruit tree, it encourages the oyster to put more growth energy into the fruit (oyster meat), rather than leaves and branches (shell). It also hardens the shell of the oyster, making shucking much easier. We use a home made tumbler and several tubes that are perforated with different sized holes. As we run the oysters through the tumbler, they are sorted by size as their bills are chipped back. Sizing this way is crucial, because otherwise it must be done by hand, which is very time consuming and not nearly as accurate.