Oysters are one of those things people tend not to be ambivalent about. Like listening to heavy metal music or living in Joburg, they have their passionate fans and immovable detractors, but not very many people are indifferent.
It’s no surprise to find that there are rituals to eating oysters that make newcomers feel a little insecure. How do I shuck an oyster without taking off my forearm? Do I have to dab on Tabasco sauce? (And is it just added to hide the taste of the oyster?) Do I chew or swallow it whole? When do I get to swig the champagne? Must I own a racehorse to partake?
THE LOCAL CONNECTION
Regardless of whether you prefer to eat your oysters with a squeeze of lemon or a dash of hot sauce, arguably the best accompaniment is the environs, and those in the know would say there’s no better place to guzzle oysters than Knysna. These fascinating little bivalve molluscs have become synonymous with the Garden Route town, which has a rich history of oyster production, though this has somewhat declined in recent years.
Knysna’s reputation as the oyster capital of South Africa is, in many respects, purely down to the town’s history. South Africa’s first commercial oyster company was founded in Knysna in 1948, and business boomed in the 1970s and onwards. The first Oyster Festival took place in 1983, but as the popularity of the festival grew, so did the challenges facing the oyster farms. Issues including rumours of water quality problems, permits not being assigned, and seasonal flooding (exposing the oysters to fatal levels of fresh water) meant that in 2010 the last farm in the estuary closed.
Now, there are some who are trying to kick-start cultivating oysters in the lagoon again – they say that the presence of oysters will improve water quality in the lagoon and this obviously has other benefits. Nevertheless, it’s still early days.
GROWING OUR OWN
Interestingly, the cultivated oysters so synonymous with Knysna were never from Knysna anyway, but originally came from the Sea of Japan. And, whilst Knysna was a popular oyster-rearing location, our cultivated oysters are now grown predominantly at Saldanha Bay on the West Coast and Algoa Bay in Port Elizabeth.
The Knysna Oyster Company (www.oystersonline.co.za), founded in 1949, specialises in producing Pacific oysters, which they farm in Algoa Bay. This farming process is incredibly interesting. Juvenile oysters (called “spats”) are imported from hatcheries elsewhere in the world, such as Namibia or Chile. They’re just 3 to 4 mm in size and are stocked in a floating nursery whilst sea water is pumped over them until they reach 15 to 20 mm in size. They’re then placed in nets and suspended under floats in the open water, where they are cleaned and sorted every two months.
When they reach about 25 g in weight, they’re shipped to Algoa Bay and cultivated in nets hanging down off what are called long lines, anchored about a kilometre out to sea. Here they grow to maturation, before being harvested, cleaned, purified and then shipped fresh to your nearest restaurant.
Those in the know say that whilst cultivated oysters are great, nothing beats the indigenous common rock oyster, and local wild oyster pickers do the gruelling work to pry these tenacious molluscs off the rocks – all the while dealing with icy sea water, sunburn, and exhaustion. These pickers supply some restaurants in Knysna directly, meaning you can enjoy ultrafresh, local oysters and compare them with the cultivated kind.
There are very few commercial pickers and bag sizes are limited, so wild oysters are something of a rare commodity. One place you can enjoy them is Oysters R Us (www.oystersrus.co.za / 082 578 6817), a rustic farm outside Wilderness which celebrates all things oyster and seeks to educate visitors about these amazing little creatures. Their fresh oysters are supplied by local pickers, and their oyster tank system can hold and keep up to 4,000 oysters alive at a time.
THE OYSTER FESTIVAL
So Knysna isn’t quite the oyster production hub its reputation would have us believe, but let’s not begrudge Knysna its title. Let’s face it, if nothing else, it’s not a bad setting in which to enjoy seafood, and there’s an entire annual festival which revolves around this humble creature.
Now called the Pick n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival, this annual celebration has expanded over the years to become a premium sport and lifestyle bonanza. So while the oyster is the star of the show, even if seafood isn’t your thing, the
festival has loads to offer sports lovers, adventurers and families.
The Momentum Knysna Cycle Tour is celebrating its 31st anniversary with both 50 km and 115 km routes. Mountain-biking events offer 15 km, 30 km, 50 km and 80 km routes, and there’s also the Momentum Knysna Forest Marathon & Half Marathon, one of the most beautiful races out there thanks to the views over the lagoon towards the Knysna Heads. Add to these golf tournaments, a wine festival, food festival, live music, kids’ entertainment and more, and it’s the best place to be this Winter.
This year’s festival runs from 29th June to 8th July. More information can be found at www.oysterfestival.co.za.
Go on An Oyster Tour!
If you fancy gorging yourself on oysters whilst getting out onto the waters of Knysna Lagoon, then Knysna Charters’ Oyster Tour (www.knysnacharters.com / 082 892 0469) is just the ticket. Your guide will teach you all you need to know about oysters, and you’ll get to taste the difference between wild and cultivated oysters. The tour includes white wine and half a dozen oysters per person, and the cruise will take you to the Heads and its surrounds.
First Page: Most of the oysters plated in front of us are matured on the West Coast or in Algoa Bay. Second Page Top: Knysna Lagoon has a long history of oyster production, but those days are now past.Second Page Bottom: The Pick ‘n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival may still centre around this king of molluscs, but it is also packed with races and adventure activities.Third Page: Oysters R Us is a rustic venue all about the oyster. Here you can also taste locally picked common rock oysters.