On a chilly night in the fall of 2015, Tom Perry steered his pickup truck into D.C. for a meeting with Phillip Valliant. It was part pleasure – the two had met while duck hunting with friends on the Eastern Shore and had hit it off – but mostly business. Valliant, who worked at Rappahannock Oyster Bar, was interested in starting an oyster farm. Perry already had one.
The two 20-somethings had a few beers, then headed outside to examine and taste a few of the oysters that Perry had brought up from his farm. “Holy Jesus,” was the first thing Valliant remembers saying. “I had never seen oysters like this. They looked like they had been grown in a laboratory. Every one was the same size and shape.”
Within a few minutes, a small crowd had gathered around the pair. Within an hour, they had shucked and shared more than 100 oysters with passersby. “Something clicked for me that night,” said Perry. “If I could get all my oysters to D.C., we could turn this into something big.”
A little over a year later, Perry and Valliant, now a full-time employee, are on their way. White Stone Oyster Co. has an elite restaurant clientele in the District, including Blue Duck Tavern, Le Diplomate, the Dabney and Rose’s Luxury. And the pair hope to burnish the national reputation of Chesapeake Bay oysters by offering deep-cupped, sweet and meaty oysters that compete with desirable – and pricier – West Coast varieties such as Kumamoto and Kusshi.
“They are one of the best oysters on the East Coast, easily,” said Jeremiah Langhorne, chef-owner of the Dabney, which celebrates the ingredients and cuisine of the Mid-Atlantic. “When you start doing the Pepsi Challenge with them – putting them next to the other oysters that are around – you instantly see how much better they are.”
The Chesapeake Bay was, once upon a time, what oyster expert Rowan Jacobsen called the Napa of oysters. They grew wild, billions of them, made plump and sweet from the brackish mix of waters where rivers including the Rappahannock, the James and the Potomac meet the Atlantic Ocean. But more than a century of overharvesting, along with rampant water pollution, put an end to the bounty.
A boom in aquaculture has returned oysters to the Bay, cheering locavores and environmentalists, who laud the bivalves’ ability to filter and clean the water. But many Chesapeake oysters, especially in the less-salty northern regions of the bay, lack the distinction of prized varieties such as Olympia from Washington state and Wellfleet from Massachusetts.
Small and plump, White Stones have a delicate salinity. When tasted alongside New Brunswick’s Beausoleil oysters and Miradas from Washington state, they split the difference between the briny Canadian oyster and the deeper-cupped West Coast variety. The first taste is a burst of salt that quickly softens into a long, creamy finish. The texture is ideal for oyster skeptics who fear the sometimes-snotty consistency of other East Coast oysters.
They’re Crassostrea Virginica, the same Atlantic oyster species that produces Malpeques, Wellfleets, Rappahannocks and many others on the East Coast. What makes them different? The answer is both the location of the farm and the way Perry raises them. The spot is Windmill Point, Va., just north of the mouth of the Rappahannock, a place where plenty of ocean water floods in to give a salty depth to the oyster meat. (Perry found his location by stalking Google Earth, then kayaking through potential areas using a GPS to pinpoint locations with the ideal depth, bottom and water salinity.)
To grow the oysters, Perry uses floating cages, rather than the ones that sit just off the bottom and are more common in the Chesapeake Bay. Here’s how it works: Oyster seed, each about the size of a pinkie nail, are bagged, then placed in cages that are anchored into the ground and kept afloat by pontoons. Atop the water, the waves toss and jostle the oysters, polishing their shells and creating the deep cup that leads to a meatier oyster. The constantly moving water also provides a steady stream of oyster food, such as photo- and zooplankton. “The system is not easy for me or for whoever has to go after them – especially at this time of year, where you get vicious, cold winds,” Perry said. “But this is what you have to do to get the end product we want.”
Floating cages are not new; the system is all the rage on the West Coast. But Perry is one of the few using it in the Chesapeake Bay. (Another is the Tangier Island Oyster Co., of which former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli is a co-founder.) The technique does have its downsides. For example, many people, especially those who own waterfront property, complain that hundreds of cages floating in the waves ruin the view. But, says Julie Qui, who blogs about oysters at In a Half Shell, the method does produce a thicker, smoother shell that makes shucking easier – a big plus for anyone who, like this reporter, has tried to open an oyster and turned it into a sloppy tartare.
Perry has almost 1,000 cages in the water and is harvesting 30,000 oysters a week. He hopes to triple that over the next three years. In addition to restaurants in the District, he is selling to such respected Charleston, S.C., chefs as Mike Lata and Sean Brock and, through a distributor, to a few places in New York City. “We want to grow. But we’re not trying to be the biggest,” says Perry. “We are trying to do the best oyster in the world.”