The Chesapeake Bay Oyster (crassostrea virginica), which is known as the Eastern Oyster when not raised in the Chesapeake, is an endangered species in the Chesapeake Bay, which is at once surprising and expected. It is surprising because the Chesapeake Bay gets its name from the local Native American word Chesepiook, meaning 'Great Shellfish Bay'. The Bay was awash in oysters (and no doubt blue crabs, which have over-fishing issues of their own) when the first Europeans arrived in the Chesapeake in 1607. At roughly one percent of their estimated original population, Chesapeake Bay Oysters are currently residing in the 'where are they now' column. Which brings me to why this was to be expected: Chesapeake Bay Oysters were harvested at a staggering pace from what was once (a century ago) the world's largest oyster 'fishery'. The Chesapeake Bay Oyster was not only popular as food, but valuable as a building material. Once a couple of diseases took hold, the already declining oyster populations dropped precipitiously.
Consuming Chesapeake Bay Oysters
We just visited my parents, whose house is on the estuary of a river that feeds the Chesapeake. They are participating in an oyster reclamation project whereby individuals raise oysters for their own use, but the Bay is beneficiary of the oyster's spawning and water-cleansing power in the meantime. My parents buy three hundred oysters every year and raise them in a cage off their pier. In the third year (they have three populations going at any given time) after getting a new tranche of the endangered bivalve, they have 'market ready' oysters that they can eat.
And we did eat! The oysters were exceptional--I've never had a more seductive oyster experience! We ate them raw, of course, and the flavor...mmmm...they need no 'enhancers'. Perhaps it was the remains of the salt water on the oyster, but the oysters had a fabulously aromatic, heavenly flavor, that seemed to create a halo of the oyster-flavor floating around my head. It was as though the oysters had been growing in a garden of fresh fennel. It is hard to believe that this is the same species as Cape Cod's famous Wellfleet Oyster, which is delicious in its own right...but it is no Chesapeake!
Food & Wine Harmony
It was an enlightening experience, and I cannot tell you how much I wished I could have had a bottle or two of Vermentino! We did well with Picpoul, which was a fine alternative. If the Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (old vine Roussanne) wasn't so expensive, I'd jump on a bottle of that to have with these oysters, too.
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