9 May 2023

Beautiful autumn weather makes Narooma Oyster Festival a real pearler

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Oyster Festival crowd

Around 10,000 people turned out on a beautiful autumn day at Narooma’s Quota Park. Photo: Andrew McLaughlin.

Just before a cold wintery change hit most of the NSW south coast region on Saturday night, thousands of attendees were treated to a beautiful autumn day at the annual Narooma Oyster Festival at the town’s Quota Park on the shores of Wagonga Inlet.

The festival kicked off on Friday evening with a dedicated kids zone and entertainment, main stage entertainment, the River of Light art show, a ‘long table’ dinner attended by two-time MasterChef contestant and Farm To Fork host Courtney Roulston, and a fireworks display with a countdown by celebrity chef Colin Fassnidge.

And while oysters certainly were a feature of the festival, for those of us who don’t partake, there were plenty of other food options, entertainment, and other activities to keep all attendees occupied for hours.

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My family and I stayed at nearby Tuross Heads for the weekend and, on Saturday, we arrived early ahead of the crowds and could park less than a hundred metres from the main entrance, which opened just before 10 am.

After a quick reconnoitre around the surprisingly expansive festival site to see what was on offer from the more than 100 stalls and displays, we headed to the pavilion to watch the first of five cooking demonstrations hosted by Roulston.

Her energy and enthusiasm were great fun, inviting questions and answers from the audience and even rewarding some of them with prizes of boxes of Olsson’s salt flakes, or kitchen utensil packs donated by Betta Home Living Narooma.

Oyster Shucker winner

Gerard Doody Dennis (l), the winner of the men’s competition in the Australian Oyster Shucking Championships. Photo: Narooma Oyster Festival.

Some of Roulston’s guests included Khan Danis and Dominic Mannel from the Bermagui Beach Hotel, Hussein Sarhan from Fred’s Paddington, Corey Costelloe from Rockpool Bar & Grill, Martin Bosley from Yellow Brick Road, and Colin Fassnage who hails from Castlereagh and Channel 7’s My Kitchen Rules. Each show drew larger and larger audiences and, as expected, it was standing room only with crowds spilling outside the pavilion for the dynamic and engaging Fassnage.

Outside, the crowds quickly grew to nearly 10,000. There were two stages, one at each end of the site. The stalls ranged from gourmet food trucks to local produce, gin, beer and wine tasting and sales from the wider region, including Canberra notables BentSpoke Brewing and Mt Majura Wines, arts and crafts, local produce, clothing, oyster-shucking lessons, and other local and regional businesses.

The Oyster Farmers’ Alley featured oysters from up and down the NSW south coast, from Shoalhaven to Pambula, and these were heavily patronised throughout the day. There were even a few roving shuckers offering free samples to those inclined to warm up their palettes.

The Yuin Bunaan featured the Narooma High School bushtucker stall, Dreamtime stories, and food yarning, while performances included the Djinama Yilaga choir, Muladha Gamara & Djaadjawan dancers, and didgeridoo recitals.

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Some of the ticketed events at the festival – most of which were sold out before the weekend – included the Sydney Royal Ultimate Oyster Experience, the Southern Phone’s Rock Oyster Lounge, Champagne Oyster cruises, and the Salty Festival Fiesta by Olsson’s.

The free events culminated in the Australian Oyster Shucking Championships on Saturday afternoon. Reigning champion Sally McLean from Jim Wild’s Oysters at Greenwell Point near Nowra went back-to-back in the women’s competition, while the men’s competition was won by Gerard Doody Dennis.

Doody will now represent Australia at the World Oyster Opening Championships in Galway, Ireland, in September.

Giant oyster

John from Batemans Bay Oysters with a giant 2.3kg oyster. Photo: Andrew McLaughlin.

Oyster farmer Bernie Connell won Australia’s Biggest Oyster competition with a 2.74 kg monster named ‘Jill’, who was safely returned to her(?) home in the Clyde River.

While final numbers are yet to be tallied, Festival Chair Cath Peachy said she expected more than 9500 people to have visited the festival and more than 60,000 oysters to have been consumed on Saturday.

“We’ve been growing consistently,” she told Region.

“Obviously, in 2021, the pandemic meant some restrictions, which meant smaller crowds. And while 2022 was probably a little bit bigger than this year and we had feared it was going to be a post-COVID blip, it’s great to see the numbers have remained constant.

“Obviously, the oysters are the hero of the festival, but to be able to showcase all of the other producers from Narooma and the surrounding region was great. Because Narooma is a tourist town, it really helps to support the town as we come into the low season.”

Cooking demonstration

Two-time MasterChef contestant Courtney Roulston (r) with chefs Khan Danis & Dominic Mannel from the Bermagui Beach Hotel. Photo: Andrew McLaughlin.

As a first-timer to the event, I thought the organisation was excellent, with plenty of friendly and helpful staff, crowds mostly flowing smoothly throughout the circular site from entrances at either end, and the demonstrations and other events were neatly timed so audiences could wander off for something to eat or to stretch their legs in between.

For those not wanting to drive, shuttle buses were put on for visitors travelling from Batemans Bay, Broulee, Moruya, Tuross Heads and Bodalla in the north, and from Bermagui, Cobargo, and Tilba down south.

Next year’s Narooma Oyster Festival will return on the first weekend in May 2024.

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