A hefty box of Pleasure House Oysters from Lynnhaven, Virginia were dropped off at my office in Times Square. Little did I know these were a modern day homage to a historically iconic oyster. I shared them with a select group of the most avid oyster loving colleagues, and here’s what we had to say…
The verdict was unanimous: Pleasure House Oysters are amazing. Everyone who tried an oyster most certainly wandered back for a second… and third… maybe a forth, accompanied by big wide puppy eyes. No one could get enough of these supremely plump and toothsome oysters from the great Lynnhaven River.
Back in their heyday, Lynnhaven Oysters were requested by the rich and the royal during the 18th and 19th centuries. European elites loved them for their taste, texture, and tremendous size. Unfortunately over-harvesting and pollution rapidly deteriorated the water quality, and decimated the oyster population along with it. In recent years, there has been a turnaround in the area’s productivity thanks to rigorous water conservation efforts. So much so that the areas where Pleasure House Oysters grow are still occasionally closed for safety reasons*. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to taste Chris Ludford’s oysters in their peak condition back in March.
The Pleasure House brand was created by the Ludford Brothers, who have been growing their own since 2010 as a method of quality control. They care for their oysters by hand from start to finish, only using a motor boat to get them to and from the farm. Talk about a sustainable and artisan product!
But let’s pause for a minute and talk about the name. I mean, I’ve come across some pretty saucy names in my day (i.e. The Forbidden Oyster, Naked Cowboy Oysters, French Kiss…etc), but when I received that first email from Chris, I definitely raised an eyebrow. Here’s the scoop, straight from the creator:
The name of our oysters is a reference to the proximity of our farm to Pleasure House Creek and Pleasure House Point which are both on the Lynnhaven River. The area was settled in 1635 and not long after a tavern was opened on what is now Pleasure House Road which is also near all of the previously named locations. It had no other name other than The Pleasure House. There are many rumors as to what could be found at this tavern from 1700 through the late 1800s but the only facts that are widely accepted point to it as one of the first taverns in the New World where spirits could be had. During the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 it was used by the British and Americans (respectively) as a base and observation point for nearby enemy shipping traffic on the Chesapeake Bay entrance. Unfortunately the structure burned in the 1980′s and has been lost forever.
So there you have it. These oysters are now forever tied (in my mind) to the unimaginable debauchery that was had back then. Their type of fun probably made Gatsby parties look like kids play. Either way, it’s quite provocative and exciting. As a brand strategist, I applaud this level of storytelling. I think it’s a smart way to reel the consumer in and have them associate you with an interesting idea. But of course, branding and marketing isn’t everything. Now it was time to see for myself what they were all about.
The shells were hearty and solid, which made them easy to open without much crumbling. One of my favorite moments when I’m shucking an oyster is hearing and feeling the unlocking of the hinge. It’s like opening a icy can of beer on a hot summer day or popping the cork off a fine bottle of champagne.
The meat, as you can see from the photos, was superbly plump and white. The oyster bellies bulged from their shells, which still contained a great deal of clear oyster liquor. No mud, no grit, and no oyster crabs either.
Tilting the bill of the shell to my lips, I sipped the chilled oyster liquor. It was smooth and had a well-balanced medium salinity that tasted fresh and lively. Next, I slurped the oyster back and chewed carefully. The first sensation that I felt was a sensory awakening. These were extremely clean and crisp oysters! Harvested merely 24 hours before, I could feel the vivaciousness in the flesh.
They were quite plush and varied in mouthfeel. Some bits were as elastic as a clam, while others were soft and supple like sea urchin. I’m a huge fan of interesting texture, and these definitely had it. The flavor was a brothy mix of vegetal flavors: soybean, seaweed, and subtle grassy notes rose to the top. The sweetness was subtle, but rose in force near the finish. The more you eat, the sweeter they seemed to taste.
Overall, Pleasure House Oysters delivered a wonderfully pleasurable experience for me and my colleagues. I hope to see them soon on oyster menues around the city.
*A Side Note: In April, I was informed that the river had a large part shut down for harvest and Pleasure House Oysters was part of it. The oysters that I consumed were perfectly safe, free of contaminants. This closure was the result of, “a general degradation of water quality” as put by the Virginia Department of Health. The readings of poor water quality stemmed from an abnormally wet February and March. Pleasure House Oyster farm had the lowest readings in the closed area and was unfortunately just barely inside the closed area by about 750 yards! Anyway, they are well on their way to reopen at the beginning of June.
Last Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of experiencing the Forbidden Oyster, a Virginica oyster grown at the mouth of the York River in Virginia. However, these are not your typical Virginicas…
Forbidden Oysters, by affiliation, have a long and prestigious heritage. They are cultivated by Greg Garrett — whose family has been eating oysters grown from the area since 1620 (!!!). His 14x great grandfather was the founder of Yorktown, which sits at the mouth of the York River on the south side. A few hundred years after the town’s founding, Greg’s family were able to secured prime oyster farming property along the water. The story of the Forbidden Oyster isn’t all smooth sailing though. There was a lot of controversy surrounding his right to grow oysters on these grounds. A lot of legalities, politics, and what not. But after much determination and fight, the Forbidden Oyster have finally made their debut to the world.
Upon first glance, I knew that these oysters looked their name. The rugged shells were armed with barnacles and gritty sea life. They each stood like little individual fortresses, ready to combat and give hell to whatever or whoever tries to invade them. But what was truly deceptive about their appearance was the actual shell strength. Due to perhaps a number of things, the shells were quite porous and brittle. I had a lot of trouble shucking through the hinge. The corners kept crumbling and breaking apart, which caused me to gash open cavities in several of them that leaked out precious oyster liquor. So I adapted my shucking technique to accommodate this situation by going in slightly to the side of the hinge. Then they opened up just fine.
From the inside, the Forbidden Oyster’s brutishness melted away to reveal a smooth, pearlescent white interior. The bellies of the oysters were creamy, plush and opaque: a sure sign of a delicious and hearty treat. Many of the oysters, about one in four, contained small pea crabs. These crabs shack up in oyster shells for protection and an easy meal. While they don’t eat the oysters themselves, they do steal its resources. Kind of like a bum friend who decides to crash on your couch for two months without paying rent.
Anyway, oyster crabs are considered a delicacy in this area. If you happen upon one, the proper thing to do is to eat it. Raw. Just like that. Look at it. It’s a little intimidating, no? I haven’t done it yet… maybe I can be persuaded at a later time.
From a taste perspective, Forbidden Oysters are mildly briny, supple and sweet. The flavors are clean and smooth, with a hint of earthiness in the finish. The meat is very soft and tender, so there was little need to chew. They are quite flavorful in comparison to many other Virginia oysters that I’ve had, but not as potent as other East Coast oysters along the rivers that feed directly into the Atlantic. I’d say that they’re a really good beginner’s oyster — The Forbidden Oyster gives you a preview of what a truly great oyster can be without necessarily pushing the limits of your palette. They’re easy to eat, easy to enjoy… just not so easy to open. But who cares to do only the easiest things in life? Once you master the shucking technique, they’ll be well worth it. Or maybe just best to get someone else to do that for you!
Forbidden Oysters can be found in some the hottest oyster bars in the nation. SF’s Waterbar has carried them before, along with L&E Oyster Bar in LA. But for me, I think the best way to go is to order them directly from Greg. You’ll get them fresh and fast through overnight delivery. If you need a little help on how to enjoy oysters at home, be sure to check out my post on just that!
Next time… Another new Virginia oyster experience: Pleasure House Oysters from Lynnhaven River, VA. So stay tuned!
While I don’t publish every bit of minutia of my oyster experiences, I do try to capture “the good stuff” using photography. Here are some of the most memorable, eye-candy moments of the several past months… plus some tips to enhance your next oyster experience!
Connoisseur Tip #1: If you’re ordering more than six oysters at a time, make sure to request an oyster ticket so you know exactly which one is what. Unless if you have a photographic memory, this will help you sort out which ones you prefer.
International (African, Australian, European) oysters at Oyster Station, HK
Connoisseur Tip #2: How to eat an oyster like a pro? Hint: it doesn’t involve that dinky cocktail fork. If the oyster is shucked properly, the meat will slip off the shell with a simple tilt (45 degree) of the shell. Many novices and amateurs will pluck the oyster out with a fork–often stabbing it straight through its delicate belly. Although it might be a cleaner and neater experience, don’t give in! It’s a far better and sexier experience to lift the shell to your lips, drink the cool liquor, and slide the meat into your mouth (use a bit of tongue if needed–wisdom that applies to many subjects). If the oyster is stuck to the shell, it’s a sign that either the oyster is not very fresh or the shucker didn’t do their job properly.
Just to caveat, this method doesn’t apply very well in France and other parts of Europe where they practice leaving the bottom adductor muscle still intact to prolong “freshness.” For those situations, use a fork (or spoon) to separate the adductor muscle from the shell.
Connoisseur Tip #3: After slurping down the oyster, turn the shell cup side up on your plate. It gives you an opportunity to study the beautiful patterns on the back. I think it just generally looks more elegant on the platter that way. Plus, there’s a lot to learn about from its unique characteristics. To learn more, check out my post about shells!
Connoisseur Tip #4: Avoid using the cocktail sauce that inevitably comes with all oyster platters. It’s overpowering and unnecessary. Save it for the cocktail shrimp. Try a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice or tangy mignonette sauce instead. Or to give it a minimalistic kick, grind a dash of fresh black pepper on top. Pro’s and purists will leave the oyster naked–no seasoning needed. That’s the only way to appreciate the oyster’s true flavors and nuances.
Connoisseur Tip #5: Learn how to shuck oysters. I’ve collected a bunch of videos on YouTube that show you how. You’ll be able to enjoy more (and cheaper) oysters at home AND impress your date. Remember: practice makes perfect. It use to take me nearly a minute to open one oyster. Now, I can crack almost any open and have it ready for half shell presentation in 10-15 seconds.
Last, but not least (although not technically an oyster…), a fantastic Ipswich Fried Clam Belly Roll at New Amsterdam Market
Connoisseur Tip #6: When ordering oysters at an oyster bar abroad–say Bentley’s Oyster Bar in London for example–you might encounter different numbers, or grades, associated with each variety. No. 00′s are the largest (and most expensive) and scale all the way down to No. 4 or 5. The smaller oysters aren’t necessarily worse off. From experience, I’d generally would say that the smaller the oyster, the more potent the flavor. It might be less refined at times, but definitely worth a try. “Native” oysters are also wild-caught, whereas “Rock” oysters are farmed.