The New York Times recently profiled Rappahannock Oyster Company, and we couldn’t be more excited. PropTalk visited Locklies back in the May 2013 issue, as seen below. And don’t stop there: the Times got Merroir to give them a recipe for Oyster Stuffing Cakes to try out. Perfect for a cold day like today.
The place is unassuming enough—an old tidewater marina on the banks of Locklies Creek off the Rappahannock River surrounded by mature loblolly pine forests and white sand beaches with a peppering of marsh grasses that wave rhythmically in a breeze. Truthfully, Locklies Marina looks much like any other Northern Neck wharf at first glance. That is until you notice a small-plate tasting room and oyster farming operation underway just under your nose, all part of the Rappahannock Oyster Company (ROC).
About three hours south of Annapolis to Topping, VA, by way of U.S. routes 301 and 17, which wind their way through Southern Maryland, across the Potomac River, and deep into the Northern Neck of Virginia, ROC farms and ships approximately three million Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) to high-end restaurants and eateries around the globe every year. In addition to its farming operation, the company also operates three restaurants to showcase its wares: the Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C.; Rappahannock in Richmond, VA; and Merroir at its farm in Topping. But first, perhaps a little back story is in order.
(From the NY Times Website)
All the way back in 1899, James Arthur Croxton, Jr. leased five acres of Rappahannock River bottom near Bowlers, VA, a move that was originally only designed to complement proceeds from his farm. But the oyster business proved lucrative (in most years), and the company grew and expanded its leased areas of Rappahannock River bottom. Fast forward to 1961. William Arthur Croxton, Sr. took over the company and focused his attention on more than 100 acres of leased bottom off Butylo, VA. Croxton, Sr. was famous for saying, “When the oyster business was good, it was great, but when it was bad, it was devastating,” which he said in 1954 when Hurricane Hazel wiped out the company’s entire oyster crop. It was a fickle business that the Croxtons eventually discouraged their sons from messing with, so the company laid relatively quiet until around 2002.
That was when cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton got a “use it or lose it” notice from the state of Virginia regarding the family’s oyster lease on the Rappahannock. ROC director Anthony Marchetti explains: “Travis and Ryan’s great grandfathers had passed down the lease to them, but if a lease goes unused for a certain period of time, the state will revoke it and bid it out. Travis and Ryan hadn’t planned on getting into the oyster business, but they also didn’t want to see the family business disappear. So the cousins renewed the agreement and started thinking about farming oysters.
ROC markets three distinct brands of oysters: Rappahannocks (harvested from its Locklies location), Stingrays (taken from Mobjack Bay farther south), and Olde Salts (from Chincoteague, VA). The Rappahannocks are the mildest, followed by the Stingrays and Olde Salts, which are raised in higher salinity waters (22 parts and 34 parts per thousand, respectively).
I arrived at Locklies Marina on a crisp, windy March day after a three-hour trek through Bay Country from Annapolis. ROC’s 150-acre lease runs along the Rappahannock River between Grey Point and Parrot Island, just northwest and east of Locklies. There I was met by farm manager Patrick Oliver, an enthusiastic aquaculturalist (he prefers this nomenclature over “farmer,” which his friends insist on calling him) who gave me a tour of the farm bits of the operation. Oliver was keen to show me the company’s oyster-rearing setup, and escorted me down to a dockside house where oysters were being unloaded. “We get our oyster seed—about a million oysters at a time—from a hatchery on Gwynn Island, VA, just south of here. We could do our own hatching, but getting them from a hatchery means we don’t have to have as much complicated equipment onsite and can concentrate on rearing seed.”
It turns out that spawning, hatching, and raising seed oysters aren’t as easy as putting two oysters in a tank of water, raising the water temperature to force spawning, and letting nature do the rest. Oliver says, “Once the spawning happens, the hatchery has to move the larvae around into different tanks. Since there are all types of zooplankton and other animals in the water that eat oyster larvae, the water that the oysters live in has to be filtered to exclude all but the tiniest organisms. The problem comes in feeding the oysters—since oysters filter the water to get their food (and the water has to be filtered so finely to keep out predators), the hatchery must raise all different sorts of single-celled algae to add into the water so the oysters can feed. We’re happy to leave that to a hatchery we trust.”
ROC receives oyster seed in increments of about one million (about three million total each season) once they reach a size of about one millimeter at the hatchery (around the thickness of a dime). ROC has about two million oysters in the river at any given time. Oliver says, “It’s amazing when we get them. One million oysters look and feel like a small pile of sand.” From this point, the oysters are placed in containers with varying sizes of screen on the bottom. The oysters are then sifted into gradually increasing sizes before being put into a floating upweller, which pulls nutrients from the creek’s bottom, until they are large enough to go out into the river, which usually takes about two to three months. These oysters are then placed in bags inside strings of cages that position the oysters just above the river bottom where they can feed and grow without becoming covered in silt.
As the oysters grow, the cages are taken ashore and cleaned, and the oysters are “split” into other cages to give them more room as they grow. Oliver says, “Some are fast growers, while others take a little longer. We bring them in and tumble them, which breaks off the front part of the oyster where it grows. This is how we get the oyster to form in a deep cup, which is what the half-shell market demands.” You might think that carefully tumbling, sorting, and nurturing two to three million oysters several times a year are overkill, but when they end up on plates at Michelin starred restaurants such as Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in New York City, appearance and consistency count. Oliver says, “I probably touch each and every one of these oysters dozens of times before they reach market size (three inches). They’re literally hand-crafted.” ROC director Anthony Marchetti, adds, “We’re very particular about a consistent end appearance of our oysters, and so are the chefs we sell to.”
Once the oysters are ready and staged for harvest, the oyster cages are pulled from the river with a stout crane mounted on a utility Carolina Skiff. “It’s hot, nasty work in the summer time, and winter can be challenging, too, but it’s good fun being on the water,” Oliver says. The tasty bivalves are then brought ashore, cleaned, and prepped in refrigerated 100-count bags for shipment. Bags of oysters go in containers with ice or frozen gel packs, and then off to eager chefs around the world. ROC overnights approximately 70,000 oysters to locations as far away as Hong Kong every week, and also ships directly to retail customers via the phone and Internet.
But the Croxtons aren’t content with just growing and shipping their brands of the shellfish; they celebrate the Chesapeake Bay oyster in every way they can, including opening restaurants to showcase their hand-crafted mollusks. Onsite at the oyster farm in Locklies is Merroir, a very casual, mainly al fresco affair where people can enjoy the amazing view of the Rappahannock and savor oysters and other Bay treats. The name Merroir is a play off a term used in winemaking—terroir—which describes the different tastes in grapes depending on what type of soil the grapes are grown in. Oysters often have very distinctive flavor profiles depending on the water they live in.
“We opened Merroir with the idea of having a real farm-to-table concept,” Marchetti says, adding, “The oysters come right in off the boat and right into the kitchen where we roast them and serve them on the half shell. It’s great when we have our chefs come in to taste and see what we grow.” Also on the menu are other seasonal favorites such as steamed crabs, crab cakes, scallops, and other locally-sourced seafood, all properly prepared with the utmost respect for the ingredients and pairings of excellent craft brews and wines. The company has another similarly themed restaurant in Washington, DC, called Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and serves a slightly different menu at Rappahannock, its latest eatery in Richmond, VA.
In addition to making the farm-to-table connection, saving the Bay is in ROC’s DNA. By using aquaculture instead of harvesting wild oysters, the company helps take pressure off wild stocks. Oyster aquaculture is completely sustainable, and with three million oysters in the water at any given time, ROC’s oyster lease filters up to 150 millions gallons of river water every day, improving water quality. “We also have breeding stock in with our regular oysters, which means millions of oyster larvae drift off from our oyster cages every year, enhancing the local stock,” Oliver says, adding, “It’s all good, really.” All good indeed. You can find out more about ROC at rroysters.com.
Story and photos by Gary Reich