Shuck­ing Good!

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.

Indwe - - Contents - Text: Will Edgcumbe Images © Zan Le John Pho­tog­ra­phy, Oys­ters R Us, iStockphoto.com

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.

EN­DEMIC OYS­TERS

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.

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