Thursday, May 17, 2012

Virginia Eastern Shore Guide: Part II

Written by Samantha Grieder
Edited by Lauren DeSantis
Photos by Corey Then

After having such a fun night with Chef Johnny Mo, we woke up bright and early the next morning. An earlier-than-usual 7 a.m. light breakfast, offered delectable homemade pastries, fresh fruit and even amaretto whipped cream at the Colonial Manor Inn. The orange juice was freshly squeezed, the coffee was strong, and the company of the innkeepers was welcome. Stories of the town and from the bed and breakfast were shared by owner Linda Nicola and her mother. If there is one special moment at any bed and breakfast, it might just be the breakfast part of it. Besides the great food, it's the company that makes it all the more special. It was the perfect start to the day.

After a morning meal, we took a walk through town to the Onancock Wharf. We were greeted at a family-operated Southeast Expeditions, located right along the water's edge, for a mini kayaking lesson and a different kind of tour. We grabbed our kayak, put on life jackets, and were on our way, seeing Onancock from the calm waters of the creek. Kayaks are available for single riders or for pairs, in guided tour form or simple grab-and-go rentals for designated periods of time. We navigated under bridges, in shallow areas and through open areas, all the while taking in the atmosphere of the pristine waters and learning about the history of the area. If you've never been before, not to worry, as beginners are welcome and guides can be there to help you during your eco-tour.

We took a stroll through Onancock, a small place housing artists in many forms. We checked out the local galleries, antique shops and watering holes.

In addition to the creative, you'll find various types of farmers in the region. These hard-working families are often the producers of fresh foods that we are able to enjoy, and on the Eastern Shore, much of the food produced is seafood. We met a couple of local crab farmers and learned about their businesses.

The first visit was to Eastern Shore Seafood, LLC, a tiny operation out of the owner's garage. Because of the delicate nature of the crab, three of the best crab pickers were chosen to hand-pick the meat out of the locally caught and steamed crabs. Legs are separated from the body, and the meat is separated into containers of jumbo lump, back-fin and claw. It takes about 13-14 crabs to create a one pound container of lump meat. Two women were picking crabs during our Saturday afternoon visit. "I've been doing this for about 60 years now," said one. "And I've been doing it since I was about seven," said the other.

Years of experience go into the art of picking the best meat out of each crab, and it's no small feat to fill the stacks of plastic containers. Legs are thrown into a pile in the middle of the single table in the room. The shell of the body is taken apart, and a small knife cuts through the extraneous material to get to the flesh, which is hand selected and separated. After the pickers get through the bodies, they begin taking the meat from the legs and pack those containers, which are sold as long as there is a supply. It's hard work getting through the piles of crabs, extracting the meat so carefully, ensuring that there are no shell remnants in the product, which will invariably find its way into Chef Johnny Mo's famous crab cakes. "If you ate it today, it was probably swimming yesterday," Johnny said. Eastern Shore Seafood is only one example of this.

We headed out of the at-home business operation, and we were driven to a soft shell crab purveyor. From the road, in passing, it seemed unassuming.  A hand drawn sign reading “soft shell crabs” was the only marker of public invitation. A trip down the driveway led us to a small red building. A single man stood at the plain wooden counter, ready to welcome us to his establishment. A painted blue anchor attached to the front of the counter revealed the crab house as William’s Seafood, which offers crabs hard, soft or steamed. After wandering through the open door in the back and we found ourselves among rows of shallow white containers filled with swimming blue crabs.
The hard shell crabs are closely monitored until they begin shedding. When a crab grows too large for its shell to contain it, roughly 1/3 larger in size, it begins to wiggle out of its armor, even leaving the gills behind in the old shell. This will happen about 20 times throughout the crab's lifespan. After the malting process, the now soft shell crab is separated from the rest of the group to protect it from being eaten, but there is very little time before the crab's soft shell will become hard again.
It's clear that freshness is key on the Eastern Shore, and while competition can be high for small businesses, quality is still valued. It's this philosophy that runs through the veins of the Eastern Shore, and through the farmers who are running their businesses and supporting their communities. Buy a soft shell crab from William's Seafood and Chef Johnny Mo will teach you how to cook it. (Hint: make sure you cut off the eyes!) There is so much attention given to the foods coming out of these areas of Americana. It's up to the public to acknowledge and appreciate the sources.

For the media group wandering the aisles and gazing at all the crabs shuffling through water filled containers, it was just one small part of the seafood culture that we were immersing ourselves in during this trip. It was just the beginning of the road to one of the area's most anticipated yearly events: the Chincoteague Seafood Festival.

Stay tuned as we report back with more adventures from the Virginia Eastern Shore!

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