SMALL BUT BEAU­TI­FUL

Diminu­tive in size but cer­tainly not taste, Syd­ney rock oys­ters are well worth a trip to the New South Wales South Coast

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHAR­LENE CHOW

They call it Aus­tralia’s Oyster Coast Trail. It’s not marked by sign­posts or path­ways, but fol­low the coast­line south of Syd­ney and you’re on the right track.

Sounds a lit­tle vague? But that’s just the charm of ex­plor­ing a 300km-long oyster coast. Here, na­tional parks, rivers and lakes are the lifeblood of eight estuaries−the brack­ish habi­tat be­tween fresh and sea­wa­ter –gov­erned by strict en­vi­ron­ment man­age­ment sys­tems. Lan­guid drives from farm to farm un­veil the unique­ness of each mer­roir. And if it’s May, there’s the an­nual Na­rooma Oyster Fes­ti­val to head to, which show­cases the re­gion’s oys­ters and dishes by vis­it­ing chefs.

Farm­ers on the South Coast use a com­bi­na­tion of meth­ods to grow their oys­ters. In the main, these in­volve col­lect­ing spat or baby oys­ters on pieces of plas­tic known as ‘slats’, then mov­ing them and let­ting them grow to ma­tu­rity on trays in the wa­ter or hung on lines in ro­tat­ing bags or bas­kets.

Among the three types of oys­ters grown, two are na­tive to Aus­tralia, the Syd­ney rock oyster and the An­gasi, a na­tive flat oyster. The third is the Pa­cific oyster, orig­i­nally na­tive to Ja­pan, but now com­monly grown around the world. But the one you’d see most of­ten and hear lo­cals speak with pride of is the Syd­ney rock. These are eas­ily recog­nis­able for their pe­tite size where a four-year-old could eas­ily be three times smaller than an 18-month-old Pa­cific.

From Can­berra, just a three-hour drive away, seek­ing these oys­ters out can be a quick get­away. On a five-day road trip from Mel­bourne to Syd­ney, you’d eas­ily hit parts of this trail. Or do what we did: fly from Syd­ney to Mer­im­bula (a 1.5hr do­mes­tic flight), and take a leisurely three-day drive back up, slurp­ing oys­ters all the way. Here are a few stops you shouldn’t miss.

Mer­im­bula to Tathra

CAP­TAIN SPONGE MAG­I­CAL OYS­TERS TOUR 6 Lit­tle Ga­han Street, Pam­bula NSW 2549. Tel: +61 429 453 545. mag­icaloys­ter­tours.com.au “Syd­ney Rock oys­ters are what we call an in­ter­tidal species. They will catch on to rocks where they can be sub­merged most of the time but come out twice a day on a low tide ba­si­cally. They like to bask in the sun like all Aus­tralians.”

Brett Wein­garth, nick­named ‘Sponge’, farms Syd­ney and An­gasi oys­ters on his leases in Mer­im­bula Lake, Pam­bula Lake and Pam­bula River. He was a cat­tle and sheep farmer be­fore turn­ing oyster farmer about ten years ago.

Like many other farm­ers, Wein­garth uses plas­tic slats to catch spat when oys­ters spawn. He says, “When they do catch on, they’re mi­cro­scopic. We give them time to grow un­til they’re about 4mm (size of my thumb nail), roughly about 8 months be­fore we strip the oys­ters off the slats. Then we put them into tum­blers, grade and sep­a­rate them.” Af­ter about two years from this point, the oys­ters are ready for mar­ket.

On why few farm­ers farm An­gasi, which even for him, only makes up two to three per cent of his pro­duc­tion, he says, “The An­ga­sis are much harder to grow, be­ing sub-tidal species who need to con­stantly be sub­merged in wa­ter. You have to work them quickly once you take them out of wa­ter and quickly put them back again, par­tic­u­larly in sum­mer.”

Three years ago, apart from farm­ing the oys­ters, he started run­ning a two-hour Cap­tain Sponge’s Mag­i­cal Oyster Tour, bring­ing en­thu­si­asts out to Pam­bula Lake on his oyster punt, show­ing them his leases and telling them about oys­ters. Most times, he even gets waist-deep in the wa­ter, show­ing you his oys­ters in their mesh float­ing bags. Out on the lake, we re­ally liked the de­tailed way he ex­plained things.

But of course the best part was sam­pling the oys­ters on board. We reached for the gleam­ing studs of Syd­ney rocks, un­rinsed, tak­ing in the full salty, umami hit and an earth­i­ness that lingers on the palate. While we savoured them, Wein­garth re­galed us with sto­ries of why Syd­ney rocks in Pam­bula would be milder and earth­ier than those in Mer­im­bula; how the An­gasi doesn’t “coat your mouth” the way the Syd­ney rock does, and may even have a “sour af­ter­taste”.

Tathra to Bate­mans Bay TATHRA OYS­TERS 1 Reser­voir Street, Tathra, NSW 2550. Tel: +61 2 6494 1453. Tathraoys­ters.com.au It feels like you’re pulling up to the front yard of a reg­u­lar res­i­den­tial home. But when an ‘oyster-me­ter’ and para­pher­na­lia about oyster awards greet you at the door, you know it is some­thing dif­fer­ent.

This is the home-shop of Gary and Jo Rodely and their son Sam, who only pro­duce

“THE SYD­NEY ROCK’S JUST SUCH A TOUGH LIT­TLE AUSSIE. THAT’S WHY WE LOVE IT SO MUCH.”

Syd­ney rock oys­ters grown on their leases at Nel­son’s Lake, Mi­mosa Na­tional Park. Apart from fully-grown oys­ters, they also sup­ply spat to other farms.

Gary tells us, “Ed­u­ca­tion is so im­por­tant. Peo­ple from out of our area may not un­der­stand that big­ger is not bet­ter in the oyster world. Yes it’s much quicker to turn around the Pa­cific oyster given how much larger they are and how much faster they grow, but it shows how spe­cial we think the Syd­ney rock is by want­ing to grow them.”

Their ded­i­ca­tion has helped them win a string of awards. To name a few, they gar­nered the Royal Agri­cul­tural So­ci­ety of New South Wales’ in­au­gu­ral Pres­i­dent’s medal in 2006, and have been cham­pion ex­hibitor in the Syd­ney Royal Aqua­cul­ture com­pe­ti­tion un­der the Syd­ney Royal Fine Food Show, more than 10 times in­clud­ing 2018.

They don’t typ­i­cally ex­port over­seas but re­ceive am­ple or­ders from top Syd­ney restau­rants such as Saint Peter, Cafe Syd­ney, Rock­pool and Fish At The Rocks. And ev­ery De­cem­ber to June, they wel­come vis­i­tors who pull up at their front yard just as we did, in­tro­duc­ing and sell­ing their oys­ters.

Enough talk, time for a taste. There they were on the gar­den ta­ble, a plate each of three-, four- and five-year-old Tathra oys­ters, all milky white and pearles­cent. Small but plump and juicy, these oys­ters were ir­re­sistibly rich and creamy.

See­ing how we were en­joy­ing the oys­ters, Gary says, “That creami­ness equates to the sweet­ness on your palate now. Whereas your oys­ters at home, if it was creamy, it would not be sweet. That’s the spe­cial thing about this. And you get salt up front first of all. And as you drive into Ber­magui (the next town), I want you to see if you can still taste those oys­ters.” We could in­deed.

Bate­mans Bay to Mol­ly­mook

THE OYSTER SHED ON WRAY STREET Last Shed on Wray Street, Bate­mans Bay, NSW 2536. Tel: +61 2 4472 6771. oys­ter­shed.com.au If you like see­ing the ac­tion up close and don’t mind a lit­tle ex­er­cise while you’re at it, a guided kayak­ing oyster tour may be right for you. From the punt boat ramp on Bate­mans Bay, the good peo­ple from Re­gion X (re­gionx.com.au) will lead you through ex­er­cises and suit you up with life jack­ets. On a twohour tour, you will leisurely kayak through the crys­tal clear wa­ters of the Clyde River and see how the 18 oyster busi­nesses in this area grow and har­vest their oys­ters. But the high­light is be­ing able to stop at one of them, The Oyster Shed on Wray Street.

As you pull up by the shed’s pon­toon via kayak, 4th gen­er­a­tion owner Jade Nor­ris stands ready to serve you some of the Syd­ney rock and Pa­cific oys­ters they farm off the Bates­man Bay es­tu­ary. She ex­plains that the wa­ters of the Clyde River are con­sid­ered ul­tra-pris­tine as it flows from a forested and un­touched area.

From her ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with two types of oys­ters, Nor­ris ob­serves, “When har­vested, the Pa­cific spits wa­ter out as it ages, and dries out rather than keep­ing it go­ing, while

the rock oyster which has a strong shell traps in the sea­wa­ter with it and feeds off it. The flavour in­ten­si­fies and just builds and builds and you get this ex­plo­sion of beau­ti­ful salti­ness. The Syd­ney rock’s just such a tough lit­tle Aussie. That’s why we love it so much.”

Mol­ly­mook to Syd­ney

JIM WILD’S OYSTER SER­VICE 170 Greens Road, Green­well Point, NSW, 2540. Tel: +61 2 4447 1498. Face­book.com/ JimWild­sOys­terSer­vice This unas­sum­ing oyster shed by the Crookhaven River is sit­u­ated near Nowra in the Shoal­haven re­gion. It is started by Jim Wild, well known in these parts for win­ning a world cham­pi­onship in 1984 where he shucked 30 oys­ters in 2 min­utes and 31 sec­onds. He now leaves the run­ning of the farm largely to his daugh­ter Sally McLean and her hus­band.

Says Sally, “For my eight birth­day, I got an oyster knife in­stead of a bar­bie doll. I started open­ing oys­ters from then on. I didn’t al­ways think I’d be work­ing with oys­ters. I was sup­posed to be go­ing to army, but they didn’t take me be­cause of my an­kles. And my hus­band and I moved to Queens­land for about five years but we came back here to help with the farm. My dad didn’t have a son, so I’m his son (laughs).”

She seems to be walk­ing in his foot­steps, win­ning the Na­rooma Oyster Fes­ti­val’s in­au­gu­ral women’s shuck­ing com­pe­ti­tion in May this year. Talk to her a lit­tle more and she’d share a bit about the tech­nique she uses to shuck her oys­ters. All while serv­ing up Syd­ney rock and Pa­cific oys­ters grown in the estuaries of the Crookhaven and Shoal­haven rivers.

“Ev­ery­thing we grow, we sell from our shop here. We don’t send them to Syd­ney. We have a lit­tle niche mar­ket here where peo­ple will come and eat here or get their fresh oys­ters and take away. We do have a cou­ple of lit­tle restau­rants around here that take our oys­ters, such as Pel­i­can Rocks Cafe and Zac’s Place.”

From here, it’s just an­other two- to three-hour drive to Syd­ney. If there’s time, make a rest stop in Berry, a quaint town where there are lit­tle an­tique shops to ex­plore and fresh cin­na­mon donuts from The Fa­mous Berry Donut Van food truck to en­tice you.

For us, the lin­ger­ing flavours of the briny oys­ters we had over the past few days was enough to oc­cupy the mind as we rode back into the city. In fact we’d prob­a­bly taste the river and lakes in our mem­o­ries of New South Wales South Coast for a long time to come.

Our visit to the New South Wales South Coast was made pos­si­ble by Desti­na­tion New South Wales and Qan­tas Air­lines. For more in­for­ma­tion on Aus­tralia’s Oyster Coast Trail, head to aus­tralia­soys­ter­coast.com.

Fromtop Brett Wein­garth in ac­tion dur­ing the Cap­tain Sponge Mag­i­cal Oyster Tour; One of Tathra Oys­ters’ beau­ti­ful Syd­ney rock oys­ters

This page Jade Nor­ris serv­ing oys­ters

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