History and modern times intersect in the area called North Neck, or Northern Neck in Virginia. So too, do sources of food and ways to prepare it. Writer and history-lover, Rich Grant returns with a vivid account of his trip to the hour just outside of Colonial Williamsburg.
George Washington called his birthplace, the Northern Neck, “the Garden of Virginia” and today it’s filled with fresh seafood, oysters, cute villages, and history, all uncrowded and just a short drive from the tourist hub of Williamsburg.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Of course, Ernest Hemingway was talking about Paris when he wrote that in his memoir, “A Moveable Feast.” But there’s something about oysters and wine that seems to go with making plans.
We made our plans on the outdoor terrace of Berret’s Seafood Restaurant & Taphouse Grille on DOG Street (the Duke of Gloucester Street) on the edge of Colonial Williamsburg. It had been a wonderful day spent in 1775, walking past old taverns and homes, poking through white wood gates and picket fences into immaculate gardens, watching the horse-drawn carriages clatter by, strolling around the Governor’s Palace and interacting with living historians who were bakers, printers, woodshop workers and gunsmiths.
Lunch was at a wood table shaded by grape vines in the back of Josiah Chowning’s Tavern. I had a dish called “the Low Country Shrimp Boil” of sweet shrimp, corn on the cob, fingerling potatoes, Surry sausage and charred bread, washed down with a local Loose Cannon IPA. It was May, the mask requirements had been partially lifted, and all the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg were at their peak of color.
But as dusk settled over the lovely 18th century village, we were munching on local Rochambeau oysters, the quintessential oysters of the area coming from just a few miles away where the York River meets the Chesapeake so the oysters combine the sweetness of fresh water tumbling down from the Blue Ridge Mountains with the salt of the bay. We knew it was only Friday, and a whole gorgeous Saturday of blue skies lay ahead. And we needed a plan.
Diane, our resident Virginia expert, laid out the campaign with military precision. Since we were all enjoying the Virginia oysters, we should go to their home, she said, and visit what the Virginians call “the Northern Neck,” that long peninsula between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers that spills out into the Chesapeake Bay. Of course, everyone knows Maryland’s East Shore, a magical tourist area on the east side of the Chesapeake that teems with crab and charming villages. But Diane told us the Northern Neck of Virginia had all the same things, plus Virginia oysters and history (three of the first five presidents were born here). So we could get all the fresh seafood we wanted on the Virginia side, less than an hour from Williamsburg and without crowds. Here’s what we did:
The Tides Inn, Irvington
photo courtesy of the tides inn
In 1947, “Big Steve” and “Miss Ann” Stephens purchased some land on a high point overlooking Carter’s Creek, an inlet to the Chesapeake Bay, and without any experience, decided to open a hotel. They made the right choice. Today, The Tides Inn is a famous slice of Old Virginia luxury and relaxation with 70 guest rooms and suites, three restaurants, a golf course, and the most perfect terrace in the world to have Bloody Mary’s and breakfast. Whether you have fresh Yellow House farm eggs, the signature She Crab Soup, or popular Avocado Toast, the setting overlooking boats and seagulls is wonderful.
The Tides might be where you first learn of the Virginia Oyster Trail. This route can be followed by car or bike exploring the history of oystering along the bay. At the Tides, you can even schedule a one-hour Oyster Academy Tour that will bring you out in a boat to help harvest oysters off the sandy bottom with tongs (like giant salad forks) and learn the fine art of shucking. But on this Saturday, we’re happy to just kick back and watch boats pull in and out of the dock and stroll the resort’s lovely brick paths lined with flowers.
The Charming Town of Irvington
If we weren’t on a mission, we could have easily biked, but as it was, we drove ten minutes on backroads to the wonderful little village of Irvington, passing houses and wayside shacks along the way with hand-painted signs offering fresh oysters and seafood. Irvington is a pleasant little place with eight restaurants and a handful of boutique shops.
Sitting on one edge of a green downtown park is the Steamboat Era Museum, which describes the period beginning in 1813 when up to 600 steamboats carried passengers and freight around the 11,684-mile shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay stopping at 300 destinations. While everyone is familiar with steamboats sailing up and down the Mississippi, the same thing happened in the Chesapeake and the museum tells the amazing story in a museum centered around the pilot house of the old steamboat, Potomac.
On the other side of the green was our destination: the Hope & Glory Inn. In 1889, this was the Chesapeake Male & Female Academy, which very properly had two front doors (one for boys and one for girls) and 450 students.
In 1995, Peggy Patteson (who had worked for the Tides Inn for 16 years) and husband Dudley took it over and transformed the space into what is now one of the most acclaimed inns on the Northern Neck with rave reviews from the New York Times to Travel & Leisure. With six rooms in the historic building and six cottages on a brick-lined path through a garden in the back, the Hope & Glory is a luxurious retreat with private patios, a secluded pool, gardens, song birds singing in the trees, soft robes and the finest linen sheets and most incredible of all, an outdoor garden bath. Yes – there is a complete, private, outdoor, claw tub bath with a shower head the size of a hub cap, flickering candles, strings of white lights and the smell of honeysuckle, all tucked away on a curving brick path, where you can bathe under the stars listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Of course, all rooms in the inn have a private bath, but it would be hard to resist the wonder of this magnificent outdoor shower on a hot summer night.
Another unique feature of the inn is that they have their own boat, the True Love, which can take guests out on cruises on the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay. And then there is the dining room – the Colonnade — where only 20 lucky people a night get to dine on a Prix Fixe menu of local rockfish, oysters and Rappahannock River blue crab, dished out by Chef Ms. Meseret Crockett of Ethiopia and a graduate of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in France. Wow. We didn’t get to do that, but we did have wine in the garden in a new area that will soon be open to the public.
The Rappahannock Oyster Co., Merroir
The first thing the Rappahannock Oyster Co. wants you to know is that oysters are bottom feeders: you eat what they ate, and so where they come from, the waters they are in, how they are grown, and the method they are harvested are all factors that will influence flavor.
photo credit: Todd Wright, @toddwrightphoto
They call this “merroir” – tasting the sea, a play on French “terroir” of tasting the earth. So when The Rappahannock Oyster Co. opened their first oyster tasting room in 2001, of course it had to be called Merrior. Today, Merroir is a small, informal place of outdoor tables with a tiny open air bar and dining room. It sits just across the water from the Northern Neck in Topping, VA, and the ramshackled place is surrounded by oyster cages, sea views, squawking seagulls, boats coming and going, docks and a picturesque oyster shack. And, of course, by throngs of people who have discovered that this hole-in-the-wall has become one of the most famous oyster tasting rooms on the east coast.
Everything on the menu is served raw or cooked on an outdoor grill in small-plate size dishes paired with craft brews or world famous wines. You go to a counter, place your order and wait for your name to be called to pick up raw oysters, roasted oysters, BBQ butter oysters, rosemary steamed clams, steamed shrimp, an oyster po’ boy, the grilled fish of the day, or a Stuffin Muffin made with oyster stuffing and Benton’s Bacon, covered with a peppercorn cream sauce. The ordering process couldn’t be simpler. But deciding what to order was the toughest choice we’d made in a year of pandemic. So we tried it all.
A Brief History of Rappahannock Oysters
Following the Civil War, when the South was beaten and poor, Virginia oyster farming became the equivalent of a gold rush. Half the world’s consumption of oysters came from Virginia, but the “take all you can get” farming practices were not sustainable. By 1899, Virginia realized they had a problem and they began leasing land to those who would grow oysters rather than just dredge them from public reefs. James Croxton leased two acres of Rappahannock River bottom and collecting wild spat (baby oysters) from reefs, he began growing them on his leased river bottom to be harvested later with crude tongs or by dredging.
As late as the 1960s, some 5-7 million bushels of oysters were still being harvested this way. And then the bottom fell out. By 2001, oyster harvesting in Virginia collapsed to 23,000 bushels and it was estimated that only 1 percent of the historic population of oysters still survived.
Photo Credit: Todd Wright, @toddwrightphoto
Although James Croxton’s 2-acre lease had been expanded by his son Bill to more than 200 acres, the impact of storms, thefts, disease and over-farming were such that no one really wanted the leases. And then cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton stepped in. Like any Gen-Xers, they Googled oyster farming and discovered there was a whole new world of oyster farming. Instead of growing them on the bottom, you put the wild spat in cages on six-inch legs, so grasses would grow underneath and around them, providing more nutrients while the cages could be easily removed without disturbing the bottom.
The Croxton’s loved the family history of oyster farming and the purity of oysters. You pluck them from the sea, shuck the shell, cut the meat loose and eat. There’s no filter. You are tasting the sea.
In March of 2002, the Croxtons planted 3,000 oysters. By 2007, their oysters were being served in all the great American oyster bars, and they, along with many other small oyster farmers, had saved and grown the reputation of Virginia oysters – or Crassostrea Virginica. Currently, the Croxtons have restaurants in Richmond VA, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Charleston SC and ship their oysters and clams around the nation.
What makes their Virginia oysters so famous? Remember, an oyster’s taste comes from what they eat. The Rappahannock River oysters come from where the river, tumbling down from the Blue Ridge Mountains through 65 percent forest and 35 percent crops, comes into the sea, creating sweet, buttery, crisp and full-bodied oysters. The Rochambeau oysters are called the “Goldilocks oysters,” because they have a far greater bite of the salt, but also are near the freshwater York River that spills down from the mountains. The Olde Salt oysters are the aristocrats. Coming from the coastal island of Chincoteague, known for its wild horses, they have no fresh water sources. Combined with the clam farms here, these “fruits de mar” give the truest taste of the sea.
Visiting George Washington’s Birthplace
No journey to the Northern Neck would be complete without recognizing this was the birthplace of George Washington. At least, that’s what John D. Rockefeller felt. The actual “birth house” of George Washington burned down in 1779 with no records of what it looked like. George was born here on Feb. 22, 1732, and lived here only until he was three. In the 1930s, the adulation of George Washington was so great that Rockefeller and others contributed to build a colonial house that could have been like the one George was born in on the exact site where the house stood.
Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.
Today, it’s a National Monument, and the National Park Service uses the drop-dead gorgeous site and home to tell not only of Washington’s birth, but other important stories, especially about slavery and early colonial history along river locations like this. If you’re in the Northern Neck, it’s free, beautiful, and has wonderful walks. George’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather are all buried here. And it’s interesting to learn that before passports and TSA, this was an international port with ships from around the world docking here to take on crops of tobacco and other goods.
IF YOU GO: Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history museum on the planet. There are more than 80 buildings along the mile-long Duke of Gloucester (DOG) Street that are 250 years old and some 400 other buildings have been re-constructed to original designs, creating a full-scale colonial city that is frozen in time. It is one of the great destinations in the United States. For those who have not been, Williamsburg is not a fenced off historic attraction. It is actually a real town, where you can walk anywhere, poke into 26 wonderful gardens, and enjoy the ambiance of Colonial America. But do buy a ticket to Colonial Williamsburg, which allows you to enter buildings and interact with their amazing crew of living historians. Williamsburg is a great tourism center with hotels and history, and is only an hour or so from all the attractions in the Northern Neck of Virginia.