On Christmas Day 2020, my family and I spent the afternoon burying our faces in several dozen spectacular fresh rock oysters from Merimbula, on the Far South Coast of New South Wales. My chef brother-in-law and I took turns showing my stepfather how to shuck with the shiny new oyster knife he’d been gifted. The champagne flowed as we indulged in a pent-up, mid-pandemic feast. At the time, restaurants were operating under restricted trading, so seafood distributors turned to bivalve-hungry retail customers such as us to take care of the excess.
Shane Buckley, the owner of Wapengo Rocks Wild Organic Oysters (the first Australian oyster farm to receive organic certification), was among the many producers who relied on direct-to-consumer sales during the lockdowns. Located in New South Wales’ Bega Valley, Buckley has dealt with a lot over the past few years. Fires and floods have dramatically affected his ability to harvest, and the knock-on effects have impacted water quality and the health of his oysters. Soaring freight costs and supply-chain disruptions have also hindered the recovery of his business, but Buckley remains committed to producing sustainable seafood.
“We have the best water quality in the state, as we’re surrounded by national park land and classed as ‘near pristine’. Our practices have no impact whatsoever on the estuary, and we use no treated wood products that can introduce chemicals into the environment,” says Buckley. His wild-caught native oysters are known to Australia’s best chefs and are served at Sydney’s Saint Peter eatery and at venues run by the Melbourne-based MoVida group. “We’re sticking by the restaurants that stuck by us,” Buckley adds.
Each year, the nation produces an estimated 16 million dozen oysters, with a farm gate production value of more than $90 million (that doesn’t include retail sales and other downstream economic value). “Australia grows some of the most amazing oysters in the world,” says Pez Collier, the owner of Melbourne’s Pearl Diver Cocktails & Oysters, a bar dedicated to bivalves and booze. “As oysters are filter feeders, they are a true reflection of their environment. Australia’s unique species of oyster, combined with favourable environmental conditions and quality farming, makes each oyster particularly special.”
Pearl Diver offers three or four varieties at any given time, including native New South Wales rock oysters from Merimbula, as well as Pacific oysters, a species originally introduced from Japan, sourced from as far south as Eaglehawk Neck in Tasmania and Coffin Bay in South Australia. “We really wanted to create a space to taste the amazing diversity of Australian oysters,” says Collier. “This gives guests the opportunity to explore the different species and environments.”
When asked about his favourite drink and oyster match, Collier names Domaine Ménard-Gaborit’s 2020 Accostage muscadet from France’s Loire Valley paired with Appellation rock oysters from Merimbula (rock oysters from estuaries in New South Wales are graded each day, with the finest deemed “Appellation” oysters). “The wine is bright and fresh, with heaps of green apple and citrus fruit, beautiful texture and a touch of creaminess from lees aging. It combines beautifully with the high brine and mineral notes of the oyster,” Collier says.
Australia’s history is literally paved with oyster shells. The middens left by First Nations people mark an ongoing relationship with the environment and important gathering sites for groups from all over the area. A towering mound once stood where the Sydney Opera House now stands; in fact, so numerous were oysters in the waters of Sydney Harbour that, in the early days of European colonisation, crushed shells were used to make roads and houses. During the gold rush years, oyster saloons were common, often run by Greek immigrants who were barred from other employment.
Now, as farmers such as Buckley and conscientious operators such as Collier make a case for the regeneration of natural oyster reefs, along with renewed enjoyment by discerning diners, the future of Australian oysters is as promising as the summer sea.