Located at the mouth of the Rappahannock, Merroir focuses on two things—simplicity and a menu as fresh as the breeze that blows across the river. It was here in Topping where the Rappahannock Oyster Company was founded over 100 years ago. Chef Peter Woods greeted me with a warm smile and a few oysters.
Let's shuck an oyster. Tips?
The most important thing is the difference in the oyster knife. I narrow the blade by grinding down the sides and finish it off on a sharpening stone. Most oyster knives can't cut fruit, but I can cut leather with mine. Take the point across the bill and cut the muscle from the shell in one swoop to avoid any shell pieces or loose particles. To finish, flip the oyster with the tip of the knife for a clean presentation—the “Rappahannock Roll.”
How did you get involved with Rappahannock River Oyster Company (RRO)?
Years ago, I left this area for Denver to marry my childhood sweetheart. I was the Seafood Manager at Tony's Market and got the job because nobody knew about fish in Denver! I was invited to an oyster tasting at Elway's downtown and Ryan and Travis (Croxton, owners of RRO) were running the tasting. We chatted briefly, and two weeks later they called asking if I really wanted to do this. I quit my job the next day, moved back, and in July 2011, Merroir opened. As you can see, there's not much to it. The oysters come from a few feet away and we don't need to overcomplicate that.
Why are oysters important?
Oysters are natural filters, removing sediment and bacteria from the water. I've seen the guys from TOGA (Tidewater Oyster Gardeners Association) throw a few into a tank covered with algae and in two hours, it is crystal clear. Think of all they're doing for the Chesapeake! RRO has over 300 acres throughout the bay and puts millions of shells back every year.
After some of the more traditional Virginia oyster varieties (Olde Salts, Stingrays, and Rappahannocks), Peter then shucked one that was a little different: the Barcat. These oysters are maintained monthly and the farming method is completely sustainable. This line is the poster child of The Barcat Foundation, a group that educates watermen on proper oyster harvesting and helps to fund bay projects. A bit saltier than the Rapps, mine was plump and perfect.
No oysters in months without an “R,” right? Wrong!
Two theories here, but either way, oysters are great year round! First, the guys who traditionally raked oysters were also farmers. They would plant crop in May, harvest in August and September, then oyster from October to March or April. Then, they'd pack up their oyster gear and go back to farming, hence fewer oysters in the off months.
Second, oysters in their natural cycles eat more when it gets cold to bulk up and build up spat (oyster seed) during the winter. As the water warms in the spring, they start to spawn and release spat, becoming thinner and less complex.
And I'll give you the truth behind oysters being an aphrodisiac. Do you get horny when you eat a dozen oysters? No, but one of the most important minerals to maintain a healthy “appetite” is zinc—which is highly concentrated in oysters!
Merroir Cocktail Sauce
by Peter Woods (his mother's own)
2 cups ketchup
½ cup horseradish, freshly grated
3 tbsp parsley, freshly chopped
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp cracked black pepper
2 tbsp hot sauce
Combine and enjoy!
To learn more, visit rroysters.com.
Photography by Mike Lesnick