Virginia Beach on the half shell with Pleasure House Oysters
What comes to mind when you think of Virginia Beach? If you’re like most people you think of the wide, sandy beaches and the gentle waves of the Atlantic; or perhaps the three mile long boardwalk presided over by King Neptune that’s just perfect for a summer stroll or bike ride.Within the past few years, thanks to the hard work of a handful of dedicated watermen, there’s something else you should think of in Virginia Beach.
I recently got the opportunity to head out on the water with Chris Ludford of Pleasure House Oysters to find how the Chesapeake’s favorite bivalve is making a big comeback in Virginia Beach.
I met Chris at Lynnhaven Marina to start our afternoon’s adventures. Chris, with his laid-back attitude and welcoming nature, is immediately likable. Decked out in a pair of camouflage waders, ball cap and sunglasses it’s evident he’s happiest when he’s out on the water and his enthusiasm for the area and oystering is downright contagious. A sunny early spring afternoon made for a pleasant boat ride out and it was clear why Chris chose the Lynnhaven River as his “office”. The calm, marshy waters flanked by pine laced banks attract a variety of bird life as well, we spotted several pair of osprey and a brace of bufflehead; bald eagles are commonly seen as well.
Historically Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay were a haven for oysters. Journals from George Percy, who sailed with Capt. John Smith (of Pocahontas and Jamestown Settlement fame), mentioned feasting on oysters after landing near Lynnhaven Inlet. “Lynnhaven Fancies”, oysters reportedly as big as a dinner plate, were considered prized delicacies by New York’s elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pollution and a series of viruses blighted the oyster population in the second part of the last century, but thanks to conservation efforts, including Lynnhaven River Now and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and a handful of committed watermen oysters have had a huge resurgence throughout the Chesapeake Bay throughout the past few years. In 2014 The Virginia Oyster Trail was created to highlight Virginia’s oyster culture, last fall I had the chance to experience part of the Trail myself up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
A quick fifteen minute boat ride delivered us to a small island covered in sawgrass where Chris has bend tending his oysters since 2010; you can find him out here most days in addition to being a full time fireman. Starting from seed(basically tiny baby oysters) it takes about 2 years to get to market size, though left to their own devices these oysters can get downright monstrous. Pleasure House Oysters is more of a boutique operation, harvesting about 1200 bushels per year from this 3 acre farm. Oysters are then hand delivered on the same day to a select number of top area restaurants.
Of course I was enjoying meeting Chris, learning about his story and taking in the gorgeous spring afternoon; but there was one thing I was really excited about.
Oysters, straight out of the water.
Chris, with his expert shucking skills, made quick work of the oysters ensuring we had another one in hand almost as soon as we finished the last one. The first thing that struck me was how plump and meaty they were. As teroir relates how an area is reflected in wine and coffee, meroir refects the characteristics of the area an oyster is grown in. Pleasure House Oyster’s location in an inlet off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay give these oysters the perfect balance; moderate brininess with a sweet, buttery finish. This is an oyster lover’s oyster.
Having sated my appetite for oysters and having an all around enjoyable afternoon I really didn’t think my day could get much better. On our way back to the marina, with the sun setting over Lynnhaven Inlet, a member of our group spotted something pop up from the water before disappearing again suddenly. The boat stopped as all eyes scanned the water. Our surprise visitor reemerged again , this time a little closer to the boat- we had a harbor seal! Equally curious about us as we were about him, he circled around us a few times before swimming away.
I’m guessing he’s heard how good the oysters are here too.
Pleasure House Oysters offers three tours that will leave you entertained, educated and well fed; check out pleasurehouseoysters.com for details. If you can’t make it out on the water with Chris you can get a taste of Pleasure House Oysters at the following local restaurants: Terrapin, Eurasia, Zoe’s, Chow and AW Shucks.