'Oysters are the most tender and delicate of all seafoods. They stay in bed all day and night. They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them.'
Ah oysters. I love them, but they must fresh and they must be good!
A great deal of my childhood was spent at the New South Wales south coast and I tasted my first oyster fresh off the rocks at Malua Bay when I was about ten. I've enjoyed them ever since, and have had some truly memorable oyster experiences throughout my life.
One night in the 1980s, for example, with the help of a girlfriend's husband, I prepared about ten dozen oysters kilpatrick. Nothing so special about that you might think, except that we were cooking on a tiny grill in the galley of a caravan in Narooma, and the fellow cooking with me was a hulk of a man some six feet tall. Good thing was that the oysters were as fresh as could be and we cooked them beautifully.
In South Australia for Tasting Australia in 1999, I enjoyed the most superb souffléd oysters prepared by chef Le Tu Thai at Bridgewater Mill. In all honesty I can say that since then I've never eaten anything quite like those oysters, in terms of texture and taste. Perhaps Rick Stein's grilled oysters with parmesan, butter and pepper might come close, but only just.
Also in South Australia at the Oyster Bar in Glenelg, one evening after a few (or too many!) glasses of moscato, I accepted an oyster-eating challenge. I ate three dozen oysters natural and a dozen kilpatrick. The oysters were from Coffin Bay. They were delicious and so fresh. It was easy to rise to the challenge. And my name is still on the wall of that establishment, albeit misspelled.
So far in my lifetime I've eaten oysters in the Northern Territory, Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, and up and down the south coast of New South Wales (known as The Oyster Coast). Of these many (many, many, many) dozens of oysters I've tasted, without question, the multi-award winning oysters from Wapengo Rocks near Bermagui (pictured top) are the best, the creamiest, most flavoursome and plumpest specimens.
Meet Australia's first certified organic oyster farmer...
I first met Shane Buckley and tasted his sumptuous oysters at the Whisky Live event in Canberra last year. Shane is the proud owner of Wapengo Rocks Wild Organic Oysters and his farms are at Wapengo Lake near Bermagui on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales. He specialises in farming wild caught native rock oysters, and in May 2013, after a six year restoration of the ecosystem, Shane achieved organic certification from Australian Certified Organic (ACO). Wapengo Rocks Wild Organic Oysters is the first certified organic oyster farm in Australia.
Peter and I visited Shane at Wapengo Lake on the tail end of our trip to Merimbula earlier this year, tasted more of his oysters, and chatted:
Shane, thank you for allowing us to visit you at Wapengo Lake. Tell me, how long have you been farming oysters?
It's my pleasure to welcome you both here, Liz. I've been farming oysters for seven years. I own two oyster farms, side-by-side, and adjoining leasehold. In terms of size, we have 30 acres of water, or 14 hectares.
Congratulations on the organic certification. What makes the farm, or the water on your farm, organic?
Oyster farming has been a part of Wapengo Lake since the 1890s. Evidence of the earliest techniques can be seen along our shoreline with some old rock rows still in place. The Lake is surrounded by forests and farmland, and is fed by water that flows from National Parks and State Forests. So, we took the opportunity to marry the latest in sustainable aquaculture techniques with the purest water quality.
It was six years of hard work, but today, our infrastructure and the ecosystem is quite different. We removed all of the treated materials from the leases. We don't use any polluting products, like tarred sticks, to catch the oysters. We don't use any treated pine for the rail and posts. We have pulled all of that out. Overall, we've pulled out 95% of the fixed infrastructure. It's all floating now. So, for instance, when you have the post and rail system of farming, the lake bed is shaded and the seagrasses won't grow. Since we removed the fixed infrastructure and introduced what I call 'dynamic' infrastructure (long lines with floating baskets which move with the wind and the tide) all the seagrasses have regenerated and we have returned the habitat to how it used to be 130 years ago before we started farming oysters here. Our efforts have culminated in the organic certification.
Tell me a more about the organic certification:
We are the only organically-certified Sydney Rock Oyster farm. You can only grow Sydney Rocks in New South Wales and one spot in Albany in Western Australia. As a species, we are really isolated and so that makes us quite unique because so far we are the only ones that have been certified. Organic certification is usually a three-year process. Our farming methods and improved water quality led to Australian Certified Organic (ACO) granting Organic Certification with only one year of conversion. For us, organic certification means that our sustainable practices and ecosystems approach is formally acknowledged and recognised, which is great! We've bought another farm since then and have our first audit this month, so we're going to put the new farm up for organic certification too.
Are your harvesting methods also different?
Yes, with the dynamic system there is no stressing of the oysters. Old stick cultured oysters had to be forcibly knocked from the sticks and were then culled using a steel file to knock them apart. This action caused what we know as oyster ‘culling shock’ and it actually killed a percentage of the culled oysters. Our oysters are now caught wild as single seed, requiring no harsh treatment throughout their life. We believe these practices are reflected in the quality of our oysters.
Tell me about the awards you have won for your oysters:
Wapengo Rocks oysters have won numerous awards over the years. We were awarded ten medals from the Royal Sydney Show over the last three years, and a Silver and three Bronze medals in 2014. We also took out Champion at the 2013 Bega Show.
Where can folks buy or enjoy Wapengo Rocks oysters?
Wapengo Rocks certified organic oysters are sold direct to selected restaurants (such as MoVida) in Sydney, Melbourne and regional NSW; and customers can also pop in to our Wapengo Rocks oyster shop in Bermagui.
If you buy a bag of oysters in their shells, what's the best way to keep them and how long will they keep?
Oysters in the shell will last up to a month if you keep them well, but we recommend twelve to fourteen days keeping time. The best way to keep them is just moist. Not refrigerated obviously (they aren't refrigerated out on the lake). Keep them moist with a damp cloth over and store them in a cool place, such as a laundry.
Tell me, what's your favourite way of eating oysters?
My favourite way is natural, straight out of the water.
If you do cook them, how do you prepare them?
We do a couple of things in the shop. We pickle them, which is pretty good. We also suggest you prepare them as a tapa in warmed infused oils, such as kaffir lime and lemongrass, and garlic and lemon.
For me, the best way of cooking oysters is to pop them onto the BBQ. Let them open. They just steam in their own juices and caramelise a little bit and they get a bit of a smoky flavour too. [Sounds delicious to me!].
Postcards and morsels from Wapengo Rocks oyster farm...
Wapengo Lake is fed by water flowing from National Parks and State Forests...
Taking the baskets out to the lake...
Baskets on the floating 'dynamic' long line...
There is no stressing of the oysters...
Looking across the 14 hectares of farm...
Taking a break from playing 'fetch'...
A rusted curio hangs in the shed...
Water tank at the shed...
The view from Shane's office...
Wapengo Rocks Wild Organic Oysters...
Wapengo Rocks Oyster Shop is located at 1/14 Lamont Street in Bermagui, NSW, telephone 02 6493 3560 and the Shed is located at Oyster Shed #1, Wapengo Lake Road, Wapengo, NSW (off the beaten track). You will find Wapengo Rocks on Facebook and Twitter too.
Retro oyster recipes...
OYSTERS KILPATRICK A LA LIZZY
One dozen large oysters, freshly shucked
3 rashers of best quality smoky bacon, finely diced
40ml Worcestershire sauce
lemon wedges to serve
Combine the butter and the Worcestershire sauce in a small pan and stir over a gentle heat until the butter has melted. Place the oysters in their half shells onto a lined grill tray. Sprinkle each oyster with the melted butter and Worcestershire sauce. Top each oyster with a little diced bacon. Cook under the grill until the bacon is crisp and the oysters are warmed through (this will take around five minutes or perhaps a little longer). Serves 2.
NICOLETTE STASKO'S CARPETBAG STEAK
In 2000, award-winning poet, critic and editor, Nicolette Stasko, published a delicious little book titled Oyster - from Montparnasse to Greenwell Point. As part of her research she noted that Carpetbag steak was 'once on the menu of every good restaurant and now hardly makes an appearance.' So true. It was a favourite of mine in the 1970s, although I never got around to making it. That might change. Here is Ms Stasko's simple 'recipe':
'Take a thick piece of rump or fillet steak, make a thin slit in the side with a sharp knife (being careful not to cut all the way to the edges of the steak) creating a 'pocket'. Salt and pepper the cavity. Stuff with raw shelled oysters (bottled seconds can be used) along with some butter. Secure with toothpick. Grill or barbecue steak to your liking.'
Tell me dear readers, do you enjoy eating oysters? Do you have an oyster memory you'd like to share, or perhaps a favourite recipe? Thank you for taking the time to comment, you know I love to hear from you!
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
Join me as I share with you my favourite recipes, postcards and morsels from my adventures, conversations with cookery writers
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.