The state winners of the 2020 delicious. Harvey Norman Produce Awards were announced on Monday, 18 May and three Far South Coast oyster producers are winners in the “sea” category.
Mimosa Rock Oysters won for the first time – with The Boxer oyster – while Tathra Oysters were at it again with their 5 Year Old Bistro Grade, and Wapengo Rocks have won the award for the second year in a row with their premium-grade Wapengo Rock Oysters.
The region’s success is due to living and farming in the “golden triangle for Sydney Rock Oysters” according to Shane Buckley of Wapengo Rocks.
“We have the perfect environment for growing oysters, from Bermagui in the north down to the Victorian border,” he says. “They take a bit longer to grow because of cooler water, and they develop a deeper, fuller flavour. Plus, we’re locked up by national parks so we have these pristine estuaries.”
Five years into oyster farming, first-time winner John Blankenstein of Mimosa Rock Oysters is relatively new to the industry and says the exposure that comes from winning is especially appreciated in uncertain times.
“We’ve had several big kicks in the guts this year, with fire and flood,” he says. “I’ve been trying to find a window to sell oysters; it’s not an easy gig. To have the chance to put the Mimosa name in front of six of the best chefs in the country; it’s an opportunity to introduce myself and make those connections.”
It’s no secret that restaurant closures due to COVID-19 restrictions have hit producers hard.
“The produce awards give credit to the producers who care deeply about the product that is served to us,” says delicious. editor-in-chief Kerrie McCallum. “Affected by severe drought, devastating bushfires and now COVID-19 challenges, it has never been more important to support our farmers and producers. They need our help.”
Shane bought his first oyster farm in 2007, and upgraded with the purchase of a second, adjoining farm in 2012. He produces the only certified organic Sydney rock oysters in Australia, which is one reason he attracted two chef nominations for the awards this year, one from Oliver Shaw Carruthers of Cafe Le Monde in Noosa, and one from Sydney seafood guru Josh Niland, who also happens to be a NSW judge for the produce awards.
“Despite the pandemic and the challenges we are all facing, this year’s state judging was as exciting as ever,” says Josh. “It made me feel very proud to be part of the Australian food industry.”
Josh also nominated Mimosa Rock Oysters. “Josh has championed quality seafood like no-one else,” says John.
Shane has been supplying Josh’s Paddington restaurant, Saint Peter, with premium oysters for several years.
While Saint Peter has closed its doors throughout the COVID-19 crisis, along with many other restaurants in Australia, Shane has had some restaurants continue to buy his oysters to use in their home-delivered meals or to sell through a shopfront.
“I have to really honour those suppliers who have found ways of continuing to sell my product, as well as the people all over Australia who have mail-ordered our oysters in bulk, often getting together with friends to share a big order, because they have kept us ticking over,” he says.
However, Shane is operating at about five per cent of his usual sales and, at a time of year when he usually is getting to the end of his crop, he still has a full crop to harvest.
“It’s creating a bit of strain on infrastructure,” he says. “A bit of overcrowding because we’ve got young ones coming up and nowhere to put them.”
Given the current COVID-19 crisis, the delicious. Harvey Norman Produce Awards have operated differently this year, with the state winners’ produce to be tasted at home by the Sydney-based judging panel to decide the 2020 gold medal winners later this year.
“It’s a bit of recognition for the hard work and the labour of love that it is,” says Shane. “It’s pretty humbling that it’s not just me who thinks they’re good – it’s something we can all agree on.”