Answer: “This U.S. state is home to the East Coast oyster."
If we were playing Jeopardy, do you know what the question would be? Hint: it’s not in New England, but clues can be found if you looked at a map. The Chesapeake Bay is Algonquin for “Great Shellfish Bay.” Another hint is hidden in the species’ name: Crassostrea virginica. And the answer is….“What is Virginia?”
In spite of Virginia’s claim to oyster fame, the state hasn’t been synonymous with shucking for years. Over-fishing decimated the industry, which then became overshadowed by New England. Now, like native son Rob Lowe, the Virginia oyster has made a comeback, contributing to Virginia’s ranking as the third-largest seafood-producing state. All this aquaculture has spawned a new destination for culinary tourists. Welcome to the Eastern Shore.
Compared to its crowded cousin up north, Virginia’s Eastern Shore is wonderfully laid back — the wooden dinghy to Maryland’s booze cruise. Boats outnumber cars, farms cover more ground than houses, and the best beaches are only accessible by boat. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore’s watery bookends provide the perfect backdrop for bivalve farming. These waters are a bountiful bouillabaisse; in addition to oysters, clams, crabs, and local fish like rockfish and cobia are plentiful.
Alongside this oyster boom, Virginia’s wine industry has equally blossomed, with the Eastern Shore wineries forming the state’s newest appellation. This epicurean coincidence allows visitors to indulge in a unique, locavore experience: devouring oysters and drinking wine cultivated from the same environment. As in California’s Sonoma County, a straight, latitudinal shot from the Eastern Shore, this is the East Coast version of merroir meets terroir.
Since an oyster’s flavor is dependent on the water in which it’s grown, explore the various varietals along the Shore. The Baysides tend to be sweet and buttery, with a lower salinity thanks to fresh-water creek tides. Conversely, the Seasides pack a briny punch. Local wineries like Chatham Vineyards, offer an array of white wines for pairing; the steel-aged chardonnays complement the brinier oysters, while the oaked version matches the buttery bivalves.
There are numerous ways to explore the region’s bounty. Take a tour to get up close and personal with the oyster and clam beds — you can even harvest your own! Southeast Expeditions offers Paddle Your Glass Off, a combination kayak and wine tasting trip. For even more seclusion, take a boat to the Barrier Islands, the uninhabited island chain off the Shore’s west coast. Chow down on clam fritters, a regional specialty, at the vintage Exmore Diner and sample local seafood and brews at the lively Shanty. Home cooks can take cooking classes with local chef Amy Brandt, who sources ingredients from nearby farms.
From clam farmers to winemakers, many of the Eastern Shore’s businesses are family-run, adding to the homespun charm of the area. Throughout the year, visitors can savor the Shore; note that November is Virginia’s official oyster month, with Wine and Brine hosting a slew of shuck-tastic events.
Come for the oysters, stay for the seafaring spirit.