Dining with Dan
River Gold

Taste-Testing Treasure Hunt Leads to Merroir

 

by Daniel M. Walker, Contributing Writer


Dan Walker

Most Virginians don’t realize that in the 19th century, prospectors panned for gold in the upper reaches of the Rappahannock River.

Today, there’s still gold in the Rappahan­nock  in the form of the best-tasting oysters in the world. Raw, fried, or otherwise, there’s nothing more satisfying than the sweet, briny goodness of a Virginia oyster prepared correctly. 

In my travels over the back roads and waterways of Virginia, I’m in a constant quest for the best of the best. It’s this search that led me to the oyster-tasting room of Merroir, a quaint little hut along Locklies Creek, near Topping, Va., at Rappahannock River Oysters, LLC.

According to Pete Woods, the oyster master at Merroir, the name is derived from the French word terroir, which means the essence of land. In gourmet terms, it denotes the unique characteristics imparted to food by the soil and climate in which it’s grown. The French word for sea is mer, which led to the hybrid name Merroir. The oysters used by Merrior are grown by the Rappahannock River Oyster Company, harvested and delivered fresh to the able hands of Pete Woods. The French derivation is especially appropriate, since the French pioneered the marketing of oysters as luxury products. 

Pete told me that you can tell by its taste where an oyster is harvested: the saltier the water of origin, the more intense the oyster’s

flavor. Merroir offers three varieties of oysters — Rappahannocks, Stingrays, and Olde Salts. Rappahannocks are grown upriver where the water is less salty, producing a sweet, buttery, full-bodied flavor. The Stingray oyster is nearer the bay and has a saltier taste. And the oysters with the most intense flavor are the Olde Salts. I ordered three raw oysters —- a Rappahannock, a Stingray, and an Olde Salt — to try to identify each by its flavor. With the first taste, I was reminded how much better fresh oysters are when consumed at water’s edge. And Pete was right — you CAN tell the difference in taste between the three types, and I was proud that I could identify those differences! I preferred the more intense flavor of the Olde Salt oysters.

Research is hard work and requires proper nourishment, so I looked for other ways to enjoy more oysters. I asked Nikita, my server, to bring me several roasted oysters, some barbecued oysters, and a bowl of Lamb and Clam Stew. While I enjoyed the raw oysters best, the other oyster preparations were also a treat. The roasted oysters were cooked just to the point where the edges of the mantles curled. I am often reminded that in preparing oysters, simple is always best. However … a hint of spice also works. The barbecued oysters were flavored with a splash of Rodney Scott’s famous barbecue sauce. My final gourmet adventure of the day was a bowl of lamb and clam chowder — ground lamb and fresh clams in a rich, spicy broth. As Emeril would say, it has a little heat; but what a great way to end my oyster fantasy trip!

Merroir diners can also select from a variety of dishes such as crab cakes, rockfish, pork shank, lamb chops, oyster chowder, Oysters Rockefeller, and an interesting concoction called the Stuffin’ Muffin. A Stuffin’ Muffin consists of oyster stuffing formed into a cake and grilled to a golden brown — an intriguing dish with a delicious aroma.

If you’ve read my dining adventures before, you know I believe a good restaurant doesn’t have to be fancy, but should have good food, good atmosphere, and good service. The atmosphere should complement the surroundings. Good atmosphere in Switzerland might be a Swiss chalet; in Paris, a sidewalk café. While Merroir’s interior is simple, it complements the natural beauty of one of God’s prettiest places on earth. So on my next visit to Merroir, I plan to sit at one of the outside picnic tables and order a dozen of the Olde Salts, a Stuffin’ Muffin, and one of the fine brews or wines and enjoy the picturesque scenery.

Merroir is only part of the Rappahannock River Oyster Company’s operations. The business dates to 1899, when 24-year-old James Croxton purchased five acres of leased river bottom to harvest oysters in an attempt to supplement his farm income. In the ensuing years, he and other local oystermen helped to make the Chesa­peake Bay oyster the most prized oyster in the world.

In recent years, demand for Chesapeake Bay oysters has declined because of dwindling native stocks, resulting in shipments of oysters harvested overseas. Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton, descendants of James Croxton, hope to improve the quality and quantity of Bay oysters. Their ultimate goal is to help make these home-grown oysters consistently available and allow customers to once again appreciate the unique flavors that can only be found in the briny waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Recommendations are Appreciated!

A special thanks to Lynn Maloney, who suggested that I try Merroir for its delectable oysters. A visit to this creekside nugget would be a great addition to your 2012 to-do list! In this year’s travels, I’d like to find a restaurant that offers exceptional old-fashioned country cooking. Help me out by emailing me at dwalker123@comcast.net with your favorite spot for down-home dining. Happy New Year and bon appetit! 

 

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