Does everyone remember their first oyster or is it just me? One slurp and my senses opened with a loud heavenly refrain. Since then I have become a great advocate for excessive consumption of these absolutely natural, naked, undressed, freshly shucked molluscs at every given opportunity.
The track I am on is not for the faint-hearted. Lost somewhere among the spotted gums in Mimosa National Park I bottom-out on the way up the wooded ridge and again several times down the other side and I thank myself for the decision to borrow a friend’s 4WD. Nevertheless I’m pretty excited to have been granted an audience with local oyster grower Gary Rodely and his son Sam, of Tathra Oysters.
I come to a stop as instructed on my secret map, and make my way to the shimmering water, which I can see glimpses of through the bush. He is there with a smile, the weather-faced oyster farmer and his son.
Originally a Riverina boy, Gary says “we came here in 1987, my wife Jo took some convincing, but we’ve done ok” he beams.
By ‘doing ok’ Gary perhaps means the 29 times they’ve won Australian Champion Oysters out of the 32 years they’ve been in business here, growing oysters in the estuarine waters of the Sapphire Coast.
These are of course Sydney Rock Oysters, endemic to the Australian coast from Hervey Bay in Queensland to the Victorian border.
I look over the surrounding lagoon, enveloped by National Park, the silent, brackish waters perfect for catching and growing these sensationally sumptuous molluscs. All around us are rows of oyster beds, rising slowly out of the lowering tide, exposing cylindrical cages and other floating containers.
Traditionally, each oyster farmer did things differently. “Around 15 years ago these ‘floating bags’ came along and made a huge difference to oyster farming in general, everyone’s adopted the floating bag.” Gary begins to list the things he loves about this invention: “It floats on the top of the water and so, as filter feeders, the oysters gather food, solar benefit, warmth. They grow tremendously well in them.”
South Coast oysters are vulnerable to Winter mortality – a combination of viral, cold, parasitic effect, “we have lost up to 50% in the past” Gary tells me, “now with the bags we have 0% loss.”
“We are now combining these floating bags with the rotating cylinders, which have traditionally given the Sydney Rocks their desirable cup shape due to the constant rolling movement. It’s the best of both worlds”.
“As wine reflects its terroir, it is said that oysters reflect their merroir the marine environment in which they are grown. Sydney Easter Show Judge John Susman has said of the Sydney Rock Oyster, that “it has a complexity and depth that is way more interesting than the singular characteristics often displayed in Pacific and angasi (native) oysters.”
I ask Gary what’s so amazing about his oysters? “I think it’s this place” he says motioning over the brackish waters around us, “our oysters are very sweet, which is a Sydney Rock thing, but just look at this place…”
Life Cycle of the South Coast Oyster:
The oysters in this microclimate all spawn at the one time, when the water is warm. They fatten up over Christmas, and spawning is usually triggered by an event like heavy rainfall. However, if it’s not raining and hasn’t for a while, they may all decide on another trigger to spawn (tide, wind). Given these events, the Rodely’s farm can have 2 to 3 spawning events a season.
These clever little bivalves change from male to female during their lifetime, and at spawning release sperm and eggs into the waters where fertilisation occurs and larvae develop.
“We then catch the larvae. After 21 days the little creature has grown a foot that can attach itself to our ‘catching sticks’. After around 8 months the little babies are ‘flexed’ off these sticks. They then go into our oyster nursery where we watch and nurture them very closely” Gary explains.
Every year, 3-5 times a year, the juveniles get handled and graded. Once they get past one year they can double in size annually. Before that it’s more sporadic. “There are slow growing and fast growing oysters. We separate them out.” Sam tells me.
Seven days a week Gary and Sam are out on the farm, on boards and boats, watching and checking and testing their stock, and the waters. Then, after 3-4 years, when the oysters are ready for harvest, “we pull them in to the boat and begin the sorting”.
The oysters are sorted by hand if they are being sent off unopened. “Of course,” says Sam “if we are opening them we can sort as we go. We are feeling the weight of them, checking for a healthy frill, each one gets close inspection.”
They are then placed into foam boxes and are packed up to travel by road to restaurants and outlets far afield.
Many of these oysters are destined for the Rodely’s popular Tathra shop at the top of the town.
“The absolute thrill for us is seeing people’s reactions when they taste our oysters. We see it first hand, often, and right in front of us, the look on faces, and we know we are producing something special.”
“Often I meet people who they think they don’t like oysters! They always tell their story, and I’ve heard all the stories! ‘Maybe you do like oysters and you just don’t know it’ I tell them”.
“I talk them into it, I love doing that, talking the non-believers into trying.”
‘So’, I ask Gary ‘what’s your conversion rate? “80%” he answers, quick as a flash.
Then with a wink he glides off on the company vehicle, an ancient SUP board, just a farmer checking his stock, rows of little jewels growing fat happily in the pristine waters of our glorious coast.