Did you know that Virginia is the largest producer of fresh, farm-raised oysters in the country? Over the past decade, aquaculture techniques have made oysters available year round and the Virginia oyster harvest has increased ten-fold, from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to 236,000 bushels in 2011. The salinity levels of the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries are ideal for sustaining great tasting shellfish.
Virginia oysters are available at restaurants, seafood markets and retail stores in the Mid-Atlantic region.
All oysters grown on the east coast are of the same species, called Crassostrea Virginica. Oysters take on the flavor of the waters in which they are harvested. With seven different coastal habitats, the flavors of Virginia oysters range from salty to buttery to sweet. Some of the creeks on the Virginia Eastern Shore are no more than a mile apart. Yet the oysters from each region take on different nuances in flavor, texture and appearance.
Oyster Regions in Virginia
Virginia’s oyster regions stretch from the length of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, into the Chesapeake Bay, coastal rivers and down to the Lynnhaven Inlet of Virginia Beach. The coastal waters include a range of salinities from low salinity 5-12ppt, medium salinity 12-20ppt and to a high salinity over 20ppt.
2. Upper Bay Eastern Shore
Lower Bay Eastern Shore
4. Upper Bay Western Shore
5. Middle Bay Western Shore
6. Lower Bay Western Shore
See a Virginia Oyster tasting guide and region map (produced by the Virginia Marine Products Board)
Historically, oysters were only eaten during months whose names contain an “R”.
The quality was poor during summer because the oysters had just finished spawning. Oyster harvesting or farming has emerged in recent years, utilizing improved culture techniques and disease-resistant oyster seed. Triploid oysters are sterile, grow fast and can be harvested year-round. They are being raised in cages or on private reefs in an environmentally friendly way to keep up with consumer demand. Virginia’s waters and products are regulated by federal and state agencies including the FDA, the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
Oysters can be eaten raw, steamed, grilled and fried. They can also be cooked in a stew. Raw oysters are usually served with lemon juice, vinegar or cocktail sauce. Like fine wine, raw oysters have complex flavors. If you eat them often, you will learn to differentiate the oysters from different regions and know which ones you prefer.
See more than 50 oyster recipes by About.com’s Guide to Southern Food.
Annual Oyster Festivals in Maryland and Virginia
- Chincoteague Oyster Festival - October – Chincoteague, VA. The event celebrates local seafood with family games, live entertainment and small town charm.
- St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival – October - Leonardtown, MD. Home of the U.S. Oyster Shucking Contest & National Oyster Cook - off.
- Urbanna Oyster Festival – November – Urbanna, VA. The festival features oyster booths, food, music and crafts. The highlight is the oyster shucking contest which draws spectators from around the world.
- Chatham Vineyards Terroir Merroir Event - November - Machipongo, VA. The vineyard on the Eastern Shore hosts and annual oyster roast with wine, food and live music.
- Chesapeake Oyster and Beer Festival – February - National Harbor, MD. All You Care to Taste, 50 styles of beer, wine and spirits.