D.C. loves to slurp down oysters as much as any city. Just look around and you’re bound to find a restaurant shucking the succulent mollusks on the half shell, grilled or fried. Quality oysters come from all parts of America – many from the cold waters of Washington or Massachusetts. In fact, some of the best oysters are grown just a few hours away in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.
I had the wonderful opportunity recently to get a first-hand look at the lifespan of a Chesapeake Bay oyster, thanks to the gracious folks at Rappahannock River Oysters and Fords gin (more on that later).
Rappahannock has sites all around the bay, and visitors can stop by the company’s site in Topping, VA – about a two and a half hour drive from D.C. The Topping location is home to Merroir restaurant (784 Locklies Creek Rd), where you can dine on oysters, shellfish and other bounties of the bay and ocean. If that’s too far away, you can get an excellent taste at their Union Market (1309 5th St. NW) location in the city.
The drive down south is worth it though, as you’re rewarded with fantastic views of the bay and a relaxing vibe away from the hustle of the city. And with the hottest days of summer hopefully behind us, it’s an ideal time for a leisurely meal by the water.
Rappahannock uses native oysters and has an intricate system for raising them. In total, it takes about 18-24 months for oysters to mature to edible size. As babies, thousands of them live together in silt, sand and water.
As you can see, they definitely do not start out large enough to eat. Here’s a handful of baby oysters that are on their way to the raw bar.
The oysters can then be transferred to cages, where they can grow in a controlled environment while still getting the nutrients and water from the Chesapeake. It’s quite the operation – each one of these cages has thousands of oysters that can eventually be released into the ocean.
Once the oysters are large enough, they’re placed in lobster trap-looking contraptions and shuttled out into the bay to complete their growth process. There’s a complex system of locations and ropes that the oyster farmers use to keep track of their products. When they’re ready to eat, they’re pulled up out of the water and inspected for quality. Again, it takes around 18 to 24 months.
They can then be shipped out to stores and restaurants throughout the region and the country, including here at Merroir. It’s hard to get oysters that are any fresher than this!
Given that I was traveling with a bunch of gin lovers, there were plenty of martinis to go around. The gist of the pitch? That oysters and gin make a surprisingly great match. And it’s true. The clean, dry flavors of the gin play off the buttery, salty mollusk. It also makes for a classy food and drink pair.
You’re favorite martini recipe would certainly do. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here’s a great recipe to follow, courtesy of Fords gin. It soups up the traditional recipe by adding a bit of sherry and grapefruit for a subtle nutty and sour kick.
2oz Fords Gin
0.75 Blanc vermouth
0.25 Fino sherry ( such as Tio Pepe)
2 dashes grapefruit bitters (or similar)
If you’re too lazy to make a martini, try mixing a splash of gin with the leftover brine of a raw oyster using the shell as a makeshift shot glass. Talk about using the whole animal.