Virginia Oyster Academy
Located on the Virginia Oyster Trail, your day begins with a brief discussion of the history of Virginia’s oyster industry, oyster ecology and tools of the harvest. You will then accompany a traditional Virginia waterman by boat for a one-hour harvest excursion. After the voyage, a seasoned chef will teach you the art of oyster shucking before demonstrating how to expertly pair oysters with delicious sauces and a variety of wines. Fridays from 11:00 am to 2:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., weather permitting.
A description of the Academy is told below through a recent guest’s perspective:
From start to finish, the Virginia Oyster Academy is an unique experience from the iconic resort in Virginia’s Northern Neck region, the Tides Inn. Carter’s Creek, the body of water that the Tides Inn is located on, feeds into the Rappahannock River (then into the Chesapeake Bay), which is known as the nursery of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, thousands of species of fish come to spawn, lay eggs and raise their young. Oysters are no different, as they thrive in these waters.
Virginia Oyster Academy “students” were welcomed by oyster expert, Joni Carter, who resides in the area and has worked tirelessly to tell the history, ecology and stories of the oyster industry. Starting from the days before European settlers came, Carter describes how Native Americans roasted oysters and how these new inhabitants to the Americas learned from them. Showing the class the tools of the trade, she also explained the regulations surrounding oyster harvesting – to protect the waters and the environment from over-fishing. She led us to the Tides Inn Marina, where we met longtime “waterman,” Captain William Saunders. The term “watermen” refers to only those that harvest seafood from the Chesapeake Bay and the River Thames; the term was brought by the English settlers and includes those that work the water.
Boarding the small boat, our crew of six listens to Saunders as he shows us his various devices for harvesting oysters, starting with giant “tongs.” The tongs almost work like salad tongs, scraping the bottom the ocean bed and capturing a plethora of oyster shells – which he dumps onto a table to sort. Not realizing that all oyster shells don’t have oysters in them for the first time, I was fascinated to see these wild oysters close up. He quickly sorted and showed us ones he could keep when he is fishing; they are regulated by a certain size – three inches or greater.
Further out in the bay, he uses a mechanical device with a rope and pulley system that lowers a cage into the water. The cage actually works like large jaws and lifts the shells onto the boat. Sorting feverishly once again, he begins to show us how to shuck oysters. To the guests’ delight, he offers each of us a freshly shucked oyster right out of the water – no cocktail sauce, no lemon – just as fresh as you can get. After nearly an hour on the water, we pass an oyster processing plant, where he points out the massive pile of oyster shells (as high as a one-story house) which are returned to the water.
As we depart and thank William for his time, he introduces us to Joey McComas, who is an oyster farmer, champion oyster shucker and chef of Fish Hawk Oyster Bar, the new, waterfront eatery at Tides. Joey has us take a seat at patio tables surrounding the property’s pool and shows us the difference between the shells of farmed oysters vs. wild oysters. We learn our lunch will be Joey’s oysters, grilled on the half shell, drizzled with his own Thai chili sauce. Local wines from the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail were paired brilliantly with the oysters, and we all indulged on far too many of these delightful delicacies.
This experience was hands-down my favorite part of the trip to the Tides Inn. This intimate experience (limited to six people) is unforgettable, coupled with the access to these experts who are so passionate about what they do and maintaining the industry and environment. To me, travel is about the people you meet along the way and the culture you absorb – from regional food to history to even science. Every time I see oysters served, I will tell the story of the Virginia Oyster Academy and the people here.