Oysters in the Wild

17 Dec 2015

Author: Richard Cornish

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The coastline to the south of Sydney is a network of pristine waterways surrounded by vast expanses of native forest and national parks. This region is home to scores of oyster farmers who grow some of the world’s best oysters.
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Ben Ralston gently glides his aluminium punt up the Clyde River estuary. Here the river is wide and shallow. The breeze blowing in from the Tasman Sea barely makes a ripple on the shallow, crystal clear water. The 30 year old, fifth generation oyster farmer eases the boat next to his oyster lease. Ralston farms this part of the river with his brother John and together they form Ralston Bros. Oysters. 

Great arcs of floating baskets, each holding dozens of oysters, are secured to the river bed by wooden posts. “Look around you,” says Ralston. “We are surrounded by forest as far as you can see.” The only signs of civilization are the rustic wooden wharves and corrugated iron on the island where Ralston has his facilities. The Clyde River is fed from streams that meander through hundreds of thousands of hectares of the Bundawang National Park and Clyde River National Park. There is no industry, agriculture or dams upstream. This is one of the cleanest waterways in the world.  From here, Ralston Bros. Oysters are sent to top restaurants in Australia and Asia. 

Ralston Bros. Oysters is one of about 40 oyster growers located along a 300 kilometre stretch of coast extending south of Sydney to the Victorian border. Together they form Australian company – Australia’s Oyster Coast, growing the locally heralded native Sydney rock oyster, the larger native angasi oyster and the popular Pacific oyster in eight estuaries. 

Australia’s Oyster Coast growers have high standards of production and follow strict health and environmental controls set down by local authorities. 

Ralston eases the punt out of the oyster lease and heads further upstream towards the island where his ‘shed’ is. Mangroves line the banks and a pelican sits on one of the bollards on the wharf. Behind the bucolic facade the shed is packed with state-of-the-art equipment for cleaning and grading oysters. 

In a corner is a great tank in which ‘spat’, or baby oysters, are raised until they are big enough to go out on the open water. “We buy Pacific oyster spat,” says Ralston, holding a handful of tiny shells no larger than his fingernails. “These are triploid oysters,” he explains. “They don’t reproduce which means they won’t colonise the waterways and they won’t lose condition.” 

The warm and nutrient-dense waters of the Clyde River estuary are perfect for growing Pacific oysters. They can reach maturity in around 18 months and are particularly popular in Sydney’s Chinese restaurants, where larger oysters are preferred. Ralston holds a massive Pacific oyster. It is larger than the palm of his hand. He takes a shucking knife to remove the top flat shell to reveal a large fat oyster. He slides it directly into his mouth and grins. “Delicious,” he says between mouthfuls. “The thing about the oysters around here is that you can take them directly from the water and eat them. The water is that clean and pure.” 

Ralston demonstrates the simplicity of the collection process. Baskets of mature live oysters are brought to the shed and washed using a spray jet. They are graded by size and packed into hessian bags. These bags of natural fibre allow airflow and keep the live oysters cool. They are then shipped in cool storage to markets and restaurants around Australia. Oysters bound for export go through another layer of quality control, then packed into special lightweight plastic boxes. They are sent to a consolidation centre south of Sydney where they go through Quality Assurance again before being packed into insulating containers and flown to cities across Asia. 

A delivery time of approximately 30 hours is now possible between Australia’s Oyster Coast and Asian destinations.

In Singapore, they have been served at the upmarket Tanuki Bar in Orchard Road and The Mandarin Oriental. In China oysters from Australia’s Oyster Coast have been served in Chaofood and the Mongkok Oyster Bar in Guangzhou and in Shenzhen Losers Restaurant and Kin Bay Club. 

 Ralston holds up a larger angasi oyster. It has a larger, heavier shell and a meaty, flavoursome muscle inside. This is an Australian native oyster being ‘farmed’ alongside the Pacific oysters and is not only gaining popularity in Australian restaurants but piquing the interest in some international markets. 

For Australian oyster aficionados the Sydney rock oyster is a shellfish of true elegance and complexity. It is smaller, darker and slower growing than the exotic Pacific oyster (originally from Japan). Known for its creamy texture it truly reflects the environment in which it is grown. Oyster lovers call this ‘merroir’. It’s the maritime equivalent of terroir, the concept that land and ecology can affect the flavour of wine, or in this case, shellfish. The Ralston Bros. Oysters from the Clyde River are wonderfully briny with a hint of iodine from the Tasman Sea. Further south on Wapengo Lake, however, the oysters have a much different flavour. 

Wapengo Rocks oysters grow in the perfectly clear water of Wapengo Lake, fed from a stream that rises in the forest of Mumballa, the mountain sacred to the local Yuin Aboriginal people. Award-winning farmer Shane Buckley has worked hard with the forest industry to amend their practices to stop dust running into the waterway. He has also had the gravel roads around the lake sealed to stop runoff. 

“Our oysters taste different,” he says. “When the swans come in to eat the sea grass they pull it out of the lake bed and you can taste that nutty, grassy flavour. It’s quite amazing.” 

Visitors travelling the area are amazed at the beauty of the coast. The sea is sapphire blue, the sandy beaches gold and the rivers clean and fresh. Winding roads meander through spotted gum forest and cross the rivers and lagoons on single lane wooden bridges. Oyster farmers often sell oysters from their sheds. It’s part of local culture to take a bag of oysters to the beach or riverside and quietly shuck and eat them with a cold beverage. Some growers like Buckley have gone high end and celebrated oyster culture with bars like the Bermagui Oyster Room. This is a smart oyster bar serving different oysters from different regions with glasses of sparkling wine from around the world.