Romance your sweetheart on Virginia’s oyster trail!

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By Kathy Dixon

Maine has its lobster, Alaska has salmon and Virginia has the oyster.

“We want to make the Virginia oyster a household name,” exclaimed Sherri Smith, executive director of The Virginia Oyster Trail and the Artisans Center of Virginia.

In 2014, the Virginia Tourism Corporation worked with other state and community groups to begin branding the Virginia oyster. They partnered with the governor’s office, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Shellfish Growers of Virginia, the Virginia Seafood Council, Virginia Marine Products Board, local tourism offices and planning districts, and private partners.

“Everyone realized this could be more than just a regional effort,” Smith said. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe enlisted the help of the Artisans Center of Virginia, which already was managing artisan trails on the Eastern Shore and Northern Neck.

In 2015 Smith and her staff began meeting with watermen, aquaculturalists and industry groups. In 2016 businesses began joining the trail. It’s a visitor-directed “journey of discovery” that includes waterman/aqua-artisan sites as well as culinary, cultural, hospitality and activities.

Visit oyster farmer, then eat oysters

One could plan a trip to the Eastern Shore, for example, and visit Tom’s Cove Aquafarms to see how Tommy Clark raises oysters off Chincoteague Island. Then you could enjoy some of those oysters at Don’s Seafood Restaurant in downtown Chincoteague. Later you might visit Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek in Northampton County to savor Virginia wine that pairs nicely with the seaside region’s salty oysters that have a sweet butter/cream finish.

Clark, who owns Don’s Seafood, said Chincoteague oysters “taste like you went and jumped in the ocean and got that fresh, clean salty taste.”

Stay the night at the Waterside Inn on Chincoteague Island, and the next day you could stop in at Karen Tweedie Jewelry Design in Accomack County. Tweedie crafts necklaces, earrings and pendants with cultured pearls, as well as oyster jewelry made of bronze and accented with pearls.

Today there are 31 aqua/agri-artisans, which are businesses featuring the Virginia oyster, such as waterman tours and oyster boat experiences, wineries serving Virginia oysters, and breweries and distilleries creating beverages with oysters. There also are 43 restaurants, 22 lodging facilities, 15 artists or art venues creating art featuring oysters, and seven tour sites. All are listed at

The oyster trail “is drawing attention to the industry and raising awareness of the Virginia oyster,” Smith said. “We want people to know the oyster is more than just a yummy food. It has environmental and economic benefits as well.”

Oyster farm began as a hobby, grew exponentially

Tommy Clark recalled attending a marketing seminar in Virginia Beach about five years ago. “They said Chincoteague oysters were a prime example of specialty marketing/branding.”

And it’s that particular type of branding that has fueled the Virginia Oyster Trail, which includes oyster farmers and related businesses in each of the state’s eight oyster regions.

Clark, a Chincoteague native, started Tom’s Cove Aquafarms two decades ago. He was living on the mainland and started a clam and oyster hatchery in his backyard. After getting the hang of it, he recalled, “I figured if I was gonna grow 20, I may as well grow 2 million.”

He bought the property on which the current business is located and expanded the oyster side of the business. Today he harvests more than 3,000 bushels of oysters each year. He places bags of empty oyster shells in shallow water along the banks of the island, and wild oyster seed attach to them and spawn.

Clark sells oysters to about 70 percent of local restaurants and to food distributors as far south as Georgia. He also sells oysters to the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City, where they developed a special garlic sauce for Chincoteagues on the half shell.

Historic inn and vineyard serve Rappahannock oysters year-round

At the Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington, oyster trail members Dudley Patteson and his wife, Peggy, serve Rappahannock oysters to their guests. Six years ago, Patteson said, when he purchased The Dog and Oyster Vineyard, he thought branding the Virginia oyster would help promote their businesses.

“I’ve seen a surge in business since the oyster trail began,” he said, “and we’ve had people here specifically to eat oysters because of it.”

At the vineyard, he pairs dry white wine with oysters. “Wine and oysters are two of the most sought-after commodities, and we’re fortunate to have both of them right here.”

Patteson said the wine’s terroir—environmental conditions that affect the soil—mirror the oysters’ merroir—the environmental characteristics of the water in which they’re grown. “There is no other place in the world where you can pair the terroir of the grapes with the merroir of the oysters. So it’s the perfect pairing.”

Education is part of trail’s mission

One oyster can clean 50 gallons of water each day.

“That’s what people are really surprised about,” Clark said. Chincoteague eco-tourism boats stop at his docks, and if he’s nearby he’ll talk with visitors about how he grows oysters. “This fits with the educational aspect of the oyster trail.”

Patteson likes to tell his guests how Jamestown settlers survived because of oysters. When their crops failed due to drought, they sought food in the nearby waters. After that, he noted, Capt. John Smith ensured that the local oyster beds were guarded.

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