The history of oysters in America is forever and indelibly linked to the history of Virginia.
On April 26, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport and the Virginia Company colonists, including 104 men and boys, had been crammed in three small ships for almost five months sailing from England, landed at present day Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.
The day after landing at Cape Henry, a group, which included diarist George Percy, begin to explore, marching “eight miles up into the land,” probably around the present site of Lynnhaven Bay.
There, Percy writes,“We came to a place where they (the Native Americans) had made a great fire, and had been newlyroasting Oysters. When they perceived our coming, they fled away to the mountains (large sand dunes), and left many of the Oysters in the fire. We eat some of the Oysters, which were very large and delicate in taste.”
That’s the first written record of prepared food in what would become English-speaking America; the first food review, if you will, and it seems the roasted Lynnhaven oysters were a critics choice. More than 400 years later they still are.
In fact, Virginia has been known by oyster lovers as having offerings unparalleled elsewhere. There is no place that offers the oyster experience like the commonwealth, or offers the vast array of oysters not just from the Lynnhaven, but indeed from all eight distinct oyster growing regions.
OYSTERS & WINE, A PERFECT PAIR
October is Virginia Wine Month, a time to celebrate one of the commonwealth’s agricultural treasures. In fact, oysters and wine go perfect together; I love to have friends over and set up an oyster and wine bar.
Here’s how I do it:
In long, lipped trays set on top folded towels to catch condensation, I put a layer of crushed ice. On top of that I put freshly shucked Virginia oysters. If I have some from different growers or different regions, I write the name/region number on a small placard and place in front of the bivalve.
At the end of the trays I put out a number of accoutrements: freshly grated horseradish, a classic mignonette, lemon wedges, and cocktail sauce (see recipe below).
On another table, I put tubs filled with ice and an assortment of Virginia wine. There are many great wines across the region, and the varietals/styles I look for are:
Chardonnay, especially stainless steel fermented, are great for dishes like Oysters Rockefeller where the bright, crispness of the wine cuts through the cream and cheese of the food, and the citrus notes enhance the earthiness of the oyster and parmesan. This is a great choice, too, for saltier oysters on the half shell, like those from Region 1, and lower Regions 3 and 7. An oaky chardonnay would be a good choice for a broth-based chowder, and for sweeter oysters on the half-shell, like those from Regions 2, 4, 6, 5, and 8 and upper Regions 3 and 7.
Sparkling wine is good for oysters across the board, but I love it especially with fried oysters, where the effervescence plies through the crispy layer of coating goodness and gets right down to the meat of the matter. It’s great with any of the oyster regions for bivalves on the half-shell, but I especially love it with the saltier varieties, like oysters from Region 1, and lower Regions 3 and 7.
Viognier is Virginia’s signature grape, and I love this lush wine, with a bit of minearlity and often full of floral, citrus and stone fruit notes. Enjoy this with steamed oysters, where the fruit bomb of the wine accents the subtleness of the oysters; it’s great too when the steamed oysters are served with a cocktail sauce. For oysters on the half-shell, I like it with any of the regions, but especially those that have a bit of sweetness and a bit of saltiness - Goldilocks, if you will - such as Regions 3, 5 and 7 - but try it with them all.
RECIPE: OLD SCHOOL COCKTAIL SAUCE
Here is my recipe for a classic cocktail sauce; it’s quick and easy to make and really shines when dolloped atop a freshly-shucked Virginia oyster.
In a medium bowl, whisk 1 cup ketchup, 1 cup chili sauce, 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish, 1 tablespoon Asian hot sauce such as Sriracha and 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice until combined. Cover and chill for at least an hour before serving. Yields approximately 2 cups.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE OYSTER RECIPE AND WINE PAIRING?
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE OYSTER RECIPE AND WINE PAIRING?Send us the recipe for your favorite Virginia oyster dish with a recommended Virginia wine pairing and we may feature it in one of our upcoming blogs! Be sure to tag your recipe to us via Twitter in two ways: @vaoystertrail and #vaoystertrail.
Our author: Patrick Evans-Hylton is a Johnson & Wales trained chef, food historian and award-winning food journalist who has covered Virginia food and foodways in print, broadcast and electronic media since 1995. He is author of the cookbook/travel guide “Dishing Up Virginia” and publisher of the statewide “Virginia Eats + Drinks Magazine” which offers free subscriptions at www.facebook.com/VirginiaEatsDrinksMag, PatrickEvansHylton@gmail.com
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