The World Is Your Oyster
People love them, hate them, or worse, are so befuddled by their origin and appearance that they don’t dare try them. This is a great pity because oysters are like summer in a shell.
When I was very little we’d drive along the car-sick inducing old Pacific Highway, from Sydney to the Central Coast, for our summer break at a holiday house. Inevitably we’d make a pit stop at Brooklyn for lunch. The kids would tuck into newspaper-wrapped chips sprinkled with salt and vinegar. My parents always managed to procure a dozen oysters with a wedge of lemon. If I was extra lucky I would get to eat one straight from the shell.
In a hark back to those days, I took a drive down to Mooney Mooney, on the opposite side of Hawkesbury River to Brooklyn. There I met Rob Moxham and his brother Paul who are fourth generation oyster farmers. In 2005 an attack by the mysterious QX parasite (Q for Queensland where it is thought to originate, X for unknown) wiped out almost every Sydney rock oyster in the river. A farming dynasty spanning over 100 years and worth over $5 million a year was gone in a matter of months.
Many farmers couldn’t hold on and left for work elsewhere. But Rob hung on and, with the help of the Government, set about resurrecting the oyster industry in the Hawkesbury River. It’s taken five years, but with hundreds of new rows, beds, equipment and oyster stock, the Hawkesbury River oyster farmers are once again harvesting for the Sydney market to around 70% of their pre-QX volumes. There is hope that once the Sydney market is saturated in around 4 years time, they can begin to tackle the export market.
Pacific oysters are now the chosen variety grown commercially in the Hawkesbury. Introduced to Australia from Asia (probably via ballast water and from hulls of ships) they are resistant to QX and grow larger and mature in a smaller time frame of 12 months, compared to 3 years for Sydney rock. They are non-reproductive, meaning they can’t take over the river. Pacific oyster seeds are supplied from hatcheries in Tasmania, shipped to the Hawkesbury and grown in bags along the river until they are large enough, at about 4 months, to move to one of the hundreds of trays that line inlets up and down this part of the river. This process is on a continual roll to keep up with demand throughout the year.
Rob is obviously very passionate, not just about oysters, but the very thing that keeps them alive – the river. During the boat ride out to the oyster beds he talked about the various elements that have affected the river’s health, from the drought of the early part of this decade that brought with it diminished oyster production and jelly fish (both signs of the ailing health of the river), to the current flooding rains that brought back the jellyfish and have revitalised the surrounding bush, producing prolific wildflower blooms this winter and spring.
The only problem is all this rain, which flows from tributaries in Sydney’s west down to the mouth of the Hawkesbury, is that it floods the river with fresh water, swelling the oysters and altering their flavour to a taste less like the sea and more like the earth. While Paul shucked oysters from his 12-month old stock to show me their impressive size, a taste test was not forthcoming and it was painful to watch the shucked examples sink to the bottom of the river. Mother Nature has thrown them another problem. They can either pray no more rain comes ensuring salinity returns to the river or take on the more dangerous, time-consuming and expensive task of collecting hundreds of trays from their current homes and moving them to beds further down river to the mouth for a few days immersion in saltier water. If not there may be several thousand less oysters for sale this Christmas. Rob and Paul remain philosophical. It’s a good problem to have after nearly having lost it all.
The next day I drove north to Port Stephens where the effect of the rain (and QX) has not been felt. A local oyster distributor sells trays of Sydney rock by the dozen. There is a big window that looks into the adjoining shucking room. Half a dozen men protected by long waterproof aprons and gumboots shuck oyster after oyster at ultra-light speed. We don’t wait for home. We sit on the grass by the water and with a squeeze fresh lemon juice devour our first dozen. We add another dozen to the Esky to take home for later.
1 French shallot (about 1 tbs), finely diced
1 small knob of ginger (about 1 tbs), finely diced
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Mix all the ingredients in a non-metallic container and spoon over the oysters in their half shell. Serve immediately.
For 24 oysters
2 tbs Worcestershire sauce
8 thin rashers rindless bacon, finely diced
4 tbs flat leaf parsley, chopped (optional)
Preheat grill to medium high. Spread the rock salt on a tray and arrange oysters in their half shell (the rock salt keeps the oysters upright so the sauce doesn’t spill out). Sprinkle the Worchestershire sauce evenly between the oysters. Top with bacon. Grill for 6 minutes or until the bacon is crisp. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.
* This is not an Official KitchenAid recipeShare this on: