I have enjoyed hand-crafted cocktails and heirloom tomatoes, but I had never tasted “hand-crafted heirloom oysters”. On their website, the Shooting Point Oyster Company uses these culinary catchphrases to describe their goods. What I first presumed was marketing mumbo jumbo, I was proven wrong by a recent visit to this Virginia outfit. A tour of Shooting Point showed me how this successful company is mixing tradition, aquaculture know-how, and the pristine waters of the Eastern Shore into shuckable gold.
First, let’s consider the heirloom side. Shooting Point Oyster Company is a family affair, run by Tom and Ann Arsenieu Gallivan. As affable as they are adept, this couple brims with bivalve experience: commercial fishing (Tom), shellfish hatchery (Annie), and degrees in aquaculture (both).
The location of Shooting Point is steeped in tradition; they unload their haul next to the old Bayford Oyster House, where millions of oysters were harvested before disease decimated the industry in the 1960s. Shooting Point’s oysters are grown at the confluence of three major watersheds: Church Creek, Nassawadox Creek, and the Chesapeake Bay. Their bivalves benefit from this tidal tumble of fresh and saltwater, creating the Shooting Point’s signature taste that has resulted in 5 million oysters sold each year.
Now, it’s time to talk hand-crafted. Tom, the Batali of bivalves in his bright, orange boots, gives us a play-by-play of oyster cultivation. Starting as seed, aka spat, their growth begins in upwellers; then, they mature in mesh bags and metal cages, where they evolve into edible gems. Once pulled from the water, the oysters are tumbled to shape them for half shell consumption and carefully culled before being shipped out. To illustrate how hands-on this is, Tom jokes that you might not want to eat oysters the “day after Cinco de Mayo”, referring to workers’ selection process being muddled from margarita hangovers.
Shooting Point has three types of oysters: Nassawadox Salts, Shooting Point Salts, and Avery’s Pearl, the last of which is a petite oyster made from a collaboration with Ryleigh’s, a Baltimore oyster bar. The bayside Nassawadox reflect the aforementioned watershed trifecta, and bear a balance of sweet and salt; conversely the seaside Avery’s Pearl and Shooting Points, which get a finishing dunk at Hog Island, brim with the brininess of the Atlantic. Shooting Point’s oysters are savory and succulent, securing Virginia’s place back on the East Coast’s oyster map.
Just as agriculture depends on the land, oysters are all about the water. Like wine, they soak up their flavor from their environment. In the oysters’ case, they filter the water in which they grow; the merroir is the liquid equivalent to grapes’ terroir. Yet, while wine bottles divulge provenance on their bottles, oysters come unlabeled, sheathed in indistinguishable gray shells.
This is why it is important to know your oyster outfits. Having slurped a Shooting Point Nassawadox Salt straight from the bay, I give them an enthusiastic shell, er, seal of approval. If you’re able, savor them, and the Eastern Shore’s quiet charm, firsthand. Or, visit their website to find wholesalers/retailers in your area.