Savoring Virginia Beach Outdoor Pleasures
on the Pleasure House Oyster Tour
By Kathy Chin Leong
I am wearing black rubber boots stepping out on a mucky slab of mud, and I'm having the time of my life. Out on the Chesapeake Bay with Chris Ludford, the founder of Pleasure House Oysters and his mother Beverly, I see rows of shells jutting from the mud, osprey flying about, and poles sticking out of the water. The skinny white poles mark the leased territory that delineates the farm.
The delight of this journey means stepping out on the muddy waters and watching Chris haul in some baby oysters to show me the growing bounty that is one year old. He rinses them and returns them to the water. Later on he shows me large, full grown oysters that are bigger than the size of his hand.
This two-hour excursion is called the Tasting Tour on Chris' six-person boat is the real deal. He is the founder of this five-year-old enterprise, a boutique oyster farm that raises, hand picks, and washes what is known as the famous Lynnhaven oyster, renowned as what he says, "the best in the world." You need a minimum of two people, and he canhandled a max of 14 on his larger sailing vessel.
Nothing in the process is mechanical. And he doesn't sell his oysters to just anyone. He harvests about 1,500 a week, and then sells them to four restaurants locally: Terrapin, A.W. Shucks Raw Bar and Grill, Eurasia Cafe & Wine Bar, and Zoe's Steak & Seafood. His mother Beverly is part of the delivery team, along with a bevy of volunteers who help out anywhere from days, to weeks, to months.
The work is hard. Each day Chris must come out as early as 5 a.m. to check on all his oyster cages, and he also schedules in cleaning time so they don't build up gunk. Then there's the cleaning of the oysters, and then selecting which ones are at least three inches in width to sell. Of course, plenty of legal paperwork means continuously keeping up to make sure that the business stays on top of everything. When restaurant customers get their oysters, they need the paperwork that identifies when they were delivered and details regarding the batch.
And while he is also a full-time fireman, he finds time to manage this business that requires full-time devotion as well. Loving the waters he grew up on, Chris is thrilled to share his love of water with his three young children who look forward to coming on his boats as much as possible. (He owns nine, by the way). Personable and knowledgeable about the history of the water's shores, Chris offers a service to tourists and locals that bring people to the heart of nature. The charge for the ride? Approximately $49 per adult with a minimum of four people per tour.
He tells of the wife who surprised her husband with the oyster tour as a gift for his birthday. Chris also talks about the kids who get so excited when they come out on the waters to learn about oysters. Restaurateurs also thrive by coming out to see how Chris raises these critters.
Going out on his boat you feel the gentle breezes, see the farm, see the oysters, and learn how to eat them. His five points of oyster tasting include: smelling, sipping the liquid from the shell, swallowing the oyster meat whole, chewing, and then savoring the flavor.
In the 1970s, says Chris, the area was totally depleted of the oyster population, and it has not until the last ten years that aqua farming has been taken seriously in the area. In the 1970s, the oyster fans fell off the map in droves as people were nervous about water quality worldwide. It didn't help that several oil spills and polluted waters fueled negative publicity and a seafood loving public started running scared.
But now oyster bars are everywhere, and the large and juicy Lynnhaven oyster is back! People blog about the shelled creature, giving it a special honor. Chris talks about the oyster as if discussing fine wine. "In the wine industry you talk about the terrior. In oysters, it is the merroir, and the oysters taste different depending on where they are from," he says. "There is bouquet, flavor notes, and flavors on the front of the mouth and the back like wine."
On his boat, he shucks 'em, and we eat them. I down those things and then he talks about minuottes, a tasty marinade of lemons, vinegar and shallots. He shucks me a plain oyster at first, and then hands me one after he has sprinkled a bit of the minuotte on the top. This brings out the oyster flavor even more. Forget that tomato based cocktail sauce that overwhelms the flavor of the oyster, he warns. I make a mental note. The boat rocks gently in the wake after another vessel speeds by.
Before I realize it, we are heading back. On the vessel, his mother Beverly is telling stories of how much her son Chris instantly took to the water when he was young. The sun is shining creating diamonds on the surface of the water. Going back to shore we pass by mansions and hotel builds, the new bridge project, and heron nests. It's been a great morning, full of fresh air, family stories, and the freshest oysters I have ever eaten.
Pleasure House Oyster Tour- Tasting Tour
Cost: $49 per person, minimum of four people.
See: www.pleasurehouseoysters.com for details on the hands-on Waterman Tour for $82.50, and the Chef's Table Tour for $137.50 per person.