The history of seafood in America is forever and indelibly linked to the history of Virginia.
On April 26, 1607, Captain Christopher Newport and the Virginia Company colonists, including 104 men and boys, had been crammed in three small ships for almost five months sailing from England, landed at present day Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.
Their charter from King James I instructed them to find a water route to Asia, gold, and other riches.
There wasn’t a shortcut to Shanghai, nor any precious metals, but what they did find and wrote about is one of the longest, most enduring and most satisfying riches of all: an abundance of seafood.
“The main river [James] abounds with sturgeon, very large and excellent good, having also at the mouth of every brook and in every creek both store and exceedingly good fish of divers kinds. In the large sounds near the sea are multitudes of fish, banks of oysters …”
And in 1612, Captain John Smith recorded in his diary:
Of fish we were best acquainted with sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays whose tails are very dangerous, brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], eels, lampreys, catfish, shad, perch of three sorts, crabs, shrimps, crevises, oysters, cockles, and mussels.
The harvesting and processing of seafood in Virginia is one of the oldest industries in the united States and one of the state’s largest; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science reports the annual economic impact to be more than a half billion dollars.
Virginia commercial watermen annually harvest enough seafood to produce more than 1.2 million meals according to the Virginia Marine Products Board. Some 620,000 acres of water are harvested for more than 50 commercially valuable species including traditional offerings of blue crabs, clams, croaker, sea scallops, spot, striped bass (rockfish), and summer flounder.
Nontraditional products, largely caught for sale to international markets, include Chesapeake ray, conch, eel, and monkfish.
October is National Seafood Month, and it’s a great time to enjoy the bounty of Virginia’s waters. This is also Virginia Wine Month, and I love that we get an opportunity to focus on pairing two of our state’s top agricultural products while tempting our tastebuds.
According to our friends at the Virginia Marine Products Board, fin fish and shellfish at their peak this month include:
One thing I feel very strongly about is making sure that the seafood one chooses is not just local, but also sustainable.
To help keep Virginia seafood sustainable, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach coordinates the Sensible Seafood program. Affiliated with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, the program offers guidelines for best choices of seafood based on a number of factors such as whether the catch is fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways, if it contains contaminants, and so on.
I love that Williamsburg Winery is a partner of the Sensible Seafood program, in fact, Williamsburg Winery has two wines: Sensible Red and Sensible White, that pair perfectly with seafood and with proceeds benefiting the aquarium’s initiatives. The wines are available at Farm Fresh grocery stores.
Here are some ideas on pairing wine with seafood:
Acte 12 Chardonnay with raw clams or oysters or steamed mussels
Wessex Hundred Merlot with bluefish, tuna or other big-flavored fish. Also try it with spaghetti in red clam sauce
Sensible White (Pinot Grigio) with she-crab soup
Governor's White with fried flounder or a bouillabaisse
James River White with grilled catfish
Wessex Hundred Viognier with grilled rockfish (striped bass) or Crab Cakes
Patrick Evans-Hylton is a Johnson & Wales trained chef, food historian and award-winning food journalist who has covered Virginia food and foodways in print, broadcast and electronic media since 1995. He is author of the cookbook/travel guide “Dishing Up Virginia” and publisher of the statewide “Virginia Eats + Drinks Magazine” which offers free subscriptions at: