Our most recent short run shirting photo shoot took place at Rappahannock River Oysters in Topping, VA, just down the Bay from where Trible grew up. Inheriting water-grounds that have been in the family since 1899, owners and cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton have given the business new life, fresh perspective and are leading the way for the aquaculture renaissance that is taking place here in Virginia. Ryan and Travis have become great friends over the past couple of years and we sat down with the two cousins to talk about the business, Virginia oysters and the concept behind their riverside tasting room “Merroir” –one of our favorite spots that certainly requires a visit if you are ever on the eastern part of the state.
How did you come to own Rappahannock River Oysters?
Our grandfather was really the one who carved out the company as we know it, from the 40s all the way until he died in ’91. Leases for acreage on the bay come up on a ten-year cycle. In order to renew the lease you have to actually plant something on the ground. Our dads, who had no interest in being oystermen, came to Trav and I and basically said if we wanted the grounds, take them. So Trav and I quickly started to Google, “How do you grow oysters?” because we didn’t know at the time…which actually worked to our benefit because if we had learned all that my grandfather had been doing and my great grandfather had been doing, those techniques would have taken so long to unlearn. It was a good thing that we got to look at it from a clean slate and figure out what works and the smartest way to go about it. What we noticed was that all of the major regions that were producing tons of oysters had moved to aquaculture.
How is Aquaculture different from the traditional ways of the oysterman?
Our oysters grow in the same waters and eat the same food as wild, they’re just held in a cage versus sitting on the bottom. Grasses are actually able to grow underneath the cage, adding complexity to the flavor of the oyster because of all of the minerals that are coming out of the grasses. Plus it also contributes a ton of oxygen to the water. Oysters are basically the lungs of the bay. They pull algae and plankton out of the water because that’s what they feed on, filter that out, so the water is then clear and sunlight can penetrate through. On average, an oyster filters about 50-60 gallons of water per day.
Is there an “off-season?”
There is in lore. People always talk about how you want to eat an oyster in months with an “r” in it, which had merit 100 years ago when refrigeration was kind of sketchy. It was really an adage to say, “If you’re eating something in June, chances are it probably wasn’t properly refrigerated during its life cycle out of the water.” That kind of got passed down and stuck around because in the summertime, oysters spawn, they reproduce. And it’s only for two weeks that they spawn. But when they spawn, the meat kind of degrades, and it’s just not really a great oyster. So a lot of people will still say that and say it’s because they spawn in the summer. But really they only spawn for two weeks in the summer.
Merroir, the tasting room at RRO, is one of our favorite spots. Tell us a little more about it.
It’s like “terroir” –for wine. The concept of “Terroir” is really around grapes taking the flavor of the Earth. “Merroir” is really around taking in the flavor of the water. All of the oysters on the East Coast are the exact same species, just grown in a different place.
The concept around the Merroir was to create a zone out of the bay similar to Napa—where people can just drive around and taste different regions. Oysters are the best vehicle for it because they’re the most pure. You’re eating it raw, so you’re not cooking out the flavor. You’re literally tasting the region without any filter. The water is packaged in the shell and is being delivered to you, which is why it’s such a passionate food for some folks—particularly if they’re from the region and live inland. They’re just so excited when they get their oysters, because it’s a little piece of home, literally.
What’s your favorite way to eat an oyster?
My new favorite was is a little horseradish and a little lemon—horseradish just to give it a kick, and the lemon to kind of brighten it up. I find if you use a cocktail sauce or something like that, it’s so heavy that you’re not really tasting the oyster. At the end of the day, it’s not a dare. It’s like a chocolate covered ant. You want something that’s going to contribute to the flavor and let the oyster come through. But I love a cocktail sauce as well.
What is the best drink to pair with an oyster?
It really depends on your mood. Salt really goes well with a beer whereas a sweet oyster goes really well with wine. Normally with a really salty oyster, I like a beer. We’re doing that at Merroir with wines and beers and other types of food. It’s really just a romance with our oysters and clams that we grow.