Topping, Virginia

Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.

You’re off to a tasting room today. The gorgeous spot has a wide deck, tables spread out over a gravel patio, and views of the water. But you won’t be sampling sparkling wine, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir after touring a vineyard. In fact, this tasting will be unlike anything you’ve ever attended before. Today is all about oysters.

In 1899, James Croxton started growing oysters along the banks of the Rappahannock River, which ultimately flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Four generations later, the family (now two cousins) is still harvesting mollusks and shipping them to some of the best restaurants in the U.S. Though you could easily find these oysters on menus in New York City and Washington, D.C., the best place to sample them is just feet away from where they’re harvested: Merroir.

Merroir—a play on the wine buzz word terroir—is a tasting room, not a restaurant, that serves good food grown well on the east coast of Virginia. The plates are small and seasonal. The food is cooked on an outdoor grill, if it’s cooked at all. While the menu is constantly changing. Except for one thing: the focus is always on the oysters.

Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Photo: Rappahannock Oyster Co.

When you arrive at Merroir, grab a table on the patio. You have a view of the light blue water and the oyster cages from under your bright orange umbrella. Order a glass—no, make that a bottle—of Grüner Veltliner. The acidic, dry white wine from Austria will pair well with the salty oysters. Then request a dozen raw oysters that includes three different types.

The first oyster you taste, the Rappahannock River Oyster, is sweet. This oyster, which grows where the freshwater from the Blue Ridge Mountains meets the seawater of the Chesapeake Bay, sits in a deep cup. It tastes buttery at first, then a little minerally, and finishes clean. The second oyster, the Stingray, is mild. It’s harvested in bags in Mobjack Bay, in between the Rappahannock and York Rivers. It starts out sweet, becomes slightly briny, and ends on a crisp note. Finally, the Olde Salt Oyster is considered the classic oyster. It smells oceany, tastes briny, and goes down smoothly. You may not be able to pick your favorite among the oysters—they’re all that good—but by now, you can easily tell the differences between the three.

You decide to stay for lunch when your oyster tasting is finished. Do you want steamed clams or bay scallop ceviche? Roasted red pepper soup with blue crab or a crab cake with creole remoulade? Or perhaps more oysters? You can try them roasted, baked, or grilled this time. This tasting may have started out differently than any other, but it seems to be ending—continuing really—quite the same way: into a long, lazy afternoon.

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