This week’s post comes courtesy of Julie Qiu, author, photographer, and oyster connoisseur over at inahalfshell.com on Pleasure House oysters, an aquaculture brand from the Lynnhaven River in Virginia. This year alone, Virginia’s aquaculture industry has produced 28 million oysters- an incredible amount that underscores Virginia’s traditional pro-lease oyster culture and their future as a heavy-hitting oyster producing state. A growing number of discerning consumers like Julie are interested in the provenance of their oysters, which is a good thing for aquaculture ventures like the Ludford Brothers, producers of the Pleasure House oyster. These small companies can capitalize on their oyster-farm-to-table business model, which has never been more popular than in today’s slow food movement. It’s a win for oysters, for oyster farms, for oyster lovers, and for the future of the Chesapeake Bay’s unique culture and environment.
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.
All photographs courtesy of Julie Qiu. Check out the rest of her posts on in a half shell but be prepared- they’ll make you hungry!