A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
A Day with Rappahannock River Oysters

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

Our fourth day on the road began with a long drive in the drizzling rain from Chapel Hill to coastal Virginia. Our destination was Rappahannock River Oysters, whose delicious oysters we feature in the raw bar selection at our Craftsteak restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.

We arrived around noon at a little marina at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Topping, Virginia. Rappahannock River Oysters founders Travis and Ryan Croxton recently bought the place out of foreclosure and are now living my own personal dream, working from an office just steps away from the docks.

No sooner had we said our hellos to Travis, Ryan, and their director of operations, Anthony Marchetti, than they whisked us on board one of their boats to show us their oyster grounds.

The story behind Rappahannock River Oysters has something in common with Anson Mills: it's the tale of a once-abundant local resource driven almost entirely out of production, and the people who care enough to save it. In the 17th century, wild oysters in the Chesapeake were said to be so plentiful that navigating a ship was treacherous. Over time their numbers gradually declined due to overfishing, and by the 1950s, when foreign oysters were introduced to these waters, the viruses they brought with them served a final blow to the local population.

Enter Travis and Ryan, two native sons of Virginia whose grandfather was an oysterman. Eight years back, Travis was working in finance and Ryan in marketing when they discovered that their grandfather's lease on his oyster grounds was about to expire. Looking for a change of direction, they renewed the lease and set to work growing native oysters sustainably. Their mission was to restore native Chesapeake Bay oyster varieties to their former glory, putting them back on the culinary map. How's that for local pride?

Ryan and Travis grow Rappahannock River, Olde Salt, and Sting Ray oyster varieties, and while out on the water we got a chance to see the Rappahannocks growing on trays about five feet below the surface. All oysters on the East Coast are the same species, so differences in flavor, shape, and quality all come down to what the Croxtons refer to as "merroir": the impact that salt levels, water temperature, tidal flow, and other factors exert on the oyster, much like how terroir effects a grape. That might make it sound like there's little to distinguish one oyster farmer from another, but the guys at Rappahannock have to decide on the exact best location for their oyster beds, protect them against predators, and keep a watchful eye on salinity and temperature levels. Plus, they set themselves apart by sending out only the best specimens to their customers, and shipping the same day the oysters are harvested for maximal freshness.

Heading back to shore, I couldn't wait to try some of the oysters that had been harvested that day.