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
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