Clink, clink, clink! The sounds of oyster harvesting are juxtaposed with the peaceful melody of egrets, marsh hens, ospreys, herons, bald eagles and seagulls as we begin our tour in the Chesapeake Bay of the Pleasure House Oyster Farm in Lynnhaven, Virginia. We are on one of several different family-friendly tours of the Lynnhaven Pleasure House Oyster Farm.
Third-generation waterman Captain Chris Ludford — also a volunteer firefighter on a fireboat — ensures we are safe on the water as we make our way to the oyster farm. The mouth of Chesapeake Bay proves to be the perfect environment for oyster farming. White shells from dead oysters shine brilliantly in the sun at the top of the reefs, while the dark shells at the bottom of the reef are home to the live oysters.
“Oyster reefs are the basis of life…” explains Captain Chris. Sustainability is the focus at the oyster farm. Restaurants recycle the discarded broken shells and spread them onto the reef to help ensure the oysters will continue to grow there in the future.
Up close and personal at the Pleasure House Oyster Farm
Once at the farm, we gather around the makeshift table standing in the river as retired civil servant and fourth-generation waterman Captain Lee gets to work shucking the oysters for us to taste.
At this boutique farm, oysters are grown for quality and taste rather than for quantity. Workers harvest 12,000 to 15,000 oysters per week. “Farm-raised oysters are best to eat, as we should try to protect the wild ones,” explains Captain Chris. “The taste of both is the same but we’re working to make the river and bay a better place for future generations.”
The goal, Captain Chris explains, is to harvest 3-inch oysters with a deep cup and a thicker shell so that it looks great when plated in a restaurant. We learn that it takes between 18 months and two years for an oyster to get from the size of a nail on your little finger to that desired 3-inch size and shape. Staff work hard from 5am to 2pm to sort the oysters by hand and separate them by size into corresponding cages. The 5- to 7-year-old wild oysters are much larger (with a deep cup shape) than the ready-to-eat farmed oysters of 18 months.
Bottom line: the taste
Standing knee-deep in the Chesapeake Bay I never did buck up the courage to eat a raw oyster, Oysters Rockefeller are more my style, but my traveling companions raved between slurps and sighs of pleasure about the sweet, grassy and lightly salted taste with a clean finish. Captain Chris’ excitement and passion for the “pearls of the ocean” proved to be contagious and I found myself with fond memories of our adventure on the water and a greater appreciation for oysters and oyster farming.
If you’re visiting Virginia Beach, I recommend doing a tour of Lynnhaven Pleasure House Oyster Farm. Ranging from 2 to 4 hours and varying by degree of involvement, each tour is custom-built according to your interest and comfort level. Though they take place year-round, the best time to do a Pleasure House Oyster Farm tour is September to October. You’ll get to experience something new, learn a great deal about the history of oyster harvesting in the area and enjoy fresh, sustainably sourced oysters straight from the half-shell.
The next time you’re at a restaurant in Virginia Beach, look for Lynnhaven oysters on the menu — you won’t be disappointed.