Diminutive in size but certainly not in taste, Sydney rock oysters are well worth a trip to the New South Wales South Coast.
They call it Australia’s Oyster Coast Trail. It’s not marked by signposts or pathways, but follow the coastline south of Sydney and you’re on the right track. Sounds a little vague? But that’s just the charm of exploring a 300km-long oyster coast. Here, national parks, rivers and lakes are the lifeblood of eight estuaries−the brackish habitat between fresh and seawater –governed by strict environment management systems. Languid drives from farm to farm unveil the uniqueness of each merroir. And if it’s May, there’s the annual Narooma Oyster Festival to head to.
Farmers on the South Coast use a combination of methods to grow their oysters. In the main, these involve collecting spat or baby oysters on pieces of plastic known as ‘slats’, then moving them and letting them grow to maturity on trays in the water or hung on lines in rotating bags or baskets.
Among the three types of oysters grown, two are native to Australia, the Sydney rock oyster and the Angasi, a native flat oyster. The third is the Pacific oyster, originally native to Japan and now commonly grown around the world. But the one you’d see most often and hear locals speak with pride of is the Sydney rock. These are easily recognisable for their petite size where a four-year-old could easily be three times smaller than an 18-month-old Pacific.
From Canberra, just a three-hour drive away, oyster-hunting can be what quick getaways are made of. If you’re on a road trip from Melbourne to Sydney, you’d easily hit parts of this trail. Or do what we did: fly from Sydney to Merimbula (a 1.5hr domestic flight), and take a leisurely drive back up, slurping oysters all the way. Here are a few stops you shouldn’t miss.
Merimbula to Tathra
“Sydney Rock oysters are what we call an intertidal species. They will catch on to rocks where they can be submerged most of the time but come out twice a day on a low tide basically. They like to bask in the sun like all Australians.”
Brett Weingarth, nicknamed ‘Sponge’, farms Sydney rock and Angasi oysters on his leases in Merimbula Lake, Pambula Lake and Pambula River. He was a cattle and sheep farmer before turning oyster farmer about ten years ago.
As in his earlier farming experience, being patient and methodical reaps rewards. He says of catching spat when they spawn, “When they do catch on to the slats, they’re microscopic. We give them time to grow until they’re about 4mm (size of my thumb nail), roughly about eight months before we strip the oysters off the slats. Then we put them into tumblers, grade and separate them.” After about two years from this point, the oysters are ready for market.
On why few farmers farm Angasi, which even for him, only makes up two to three per cent of his production, he explains, “The Angasis are much harder to grow, being sub-tidal species who need to constantly be submerged in water. You have to work them quickly once you take them out of water and quickly put them back again, particularly in summer.”
Three years ago, apart from farming oysters, Brett started running a two-hour Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tour, bringing enthusiasts out to Pambula Lake on his oyster punt, showing them his leases and telling them about oysters. Most times, he even gets waist-deep in the water, retrieving oysters from their mesh floating bags. But of course the best part is sampling the oysters on board. While Brett recounts oyster tales, freshly shucked Sydney rock oysters will be at hand, tempting you with their earthiness and full salty, umami hit.
6 Little Gahan Street, Pambula NSW 2549. Tel: +61 429 453 545
Tathra to Batemans Bay
It feels like you’re pulling up to the front yard of a regular residential home. But when an ‘oyster-meter’ and paraphernalia about oyster awards greet you at the door, you know it is something different.
This is the home-shop of Gary and Jo Rodely and their son Sam, who only produce Sydney rock oysters grown on their leases at Nelson’s Lake, Mimosa National Park. Apart from fully-grown oysters, they also supply spat to other farms.
Gary tells us, “Education is so important. People from out of our area may not understand that bigger is not better in the oyster world. Yes it’s much quicker to turn around the Pacific oyster given how much larger they are and how much faster they grow, but it shows how special we think the Sydney rock is by wanting to grow them.”
Their dedication has helped them win a string of awards. To name a few, they garnered the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales’ inaugural President’s medal in 2006, and have been champion exhibitor in the Sydney Royal Aquaculture competition under the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show, more than 10 times including 2018.
They don’t typically export overseas but receive ample orders from top Sydney restaurants such as Saint Peter, Cafe Sydney, Rockpool and Fish At The Rocks. And every December to June, they welcome visitors who pull up at their front yard just as we did, introducing and selling their oysters.
Out in their garden, Gary lays out a plate each of three-, four- and five-year-old Tathra oysters, all plump, juicy and irresistibly rich and creamy to the bite. “That creaminess equates to the sweetness on your palate now,” says Gary. “Whereas your oysters at home, if it was creamy, it would not be sweet. That’s the special thing about this. And you get salt up front first of all. And as you drive into Bermagui (the next town), I want you to see if you can still taste those oysters.” We could indeed.
1 Reservoir Street, Tathra, NSW 2550. Tel: +61 2 6494 1453
Batemans Bay to Mollymook
If you like seeing the action up close and don’t mind a little exercise while you’re at it, a guided kayaking oyster tour may be right for you. From the punt boat ramp on Batemans Bay, the good people from Region X conduct warm-up exercises, provide life jackets and lead a two-hour tour through the crystal clear waters of the Clyde River and oyster farms in the area. But the highlight is being able to stop at one of them, The Oyster Shed on Wray Street.
As oyster lovers pull up by the shed’s pontoon via kayak, 4th generation owner Jade Norris serves up some of the Sydney rock and Pacific oysters they farm off the Batesman Bay estuary. She explains that the waters of the Clyde River are considered ultra-pristine as it flows from a forested and untouched area.
From her experience working with two types of oysters, Jade observes, “When harvested, the Pacific spits water out as it ages, and dries out rather than keeping it going, while the rock oyster, which has a strong shell, traps in the seawater with it and feeds off it. The flavour intensifies and just builds and builds and you get this explosion of beautiful saltiness. The Sydney rock’s just such a tough little Aussie. That’s why we love it so much.”
Last Shed on Wray Street, Batemans Bay, NSW 2536. Tel: +61 2 4472 6771
Mollymook to Sydney
This unassuming oyster shed by the Crookhaven River is situated near Nowra in the Shoalhaven region. It was started by Jim Wild, well known in these parts for winning a world championship in 1984 where he shucked 30 oysters in 2 minutes and 31 seconds. He now leaves the running of the farm largely to his daughter Sally McLean and her husband.
Says Sally, “For my eight birthday, I got an oyster knife instead of a barbie doll. I started opening oysters from then on. I didn’t always think I’d be working with oysters. I was supposed to be going to army, but they didn’t take me because of my ankles. Later, my husband and I did move to Queensland for about five years, but we eventually came back here to help with the farm. My dad didn’t have a son, so I’m his son (laughs).”
She seems to be walking in his footsteps, winning the Narooma Oyster Festival’s inaugural women’s shucking competition in May this year. Talk to her a little more and she’d share her oyster-shucking technique, all while serving up Sydney rock and Pacific oysters grown in the estuaries of the Crookhaven and Shoalhaven rivers.
“Everything we grow, we sell at our shop,” she says. “We don’t send them to Sydney. We have a little niche market here where people will come and eat here or get their fresh oysters and take away. We do have a couple of little restaurants around here that take our oysters, such as Pelican Rocks Cafe and Zac’s Place.”
170 Greens Road, Greenwell Point, NSW, 2540. Tel: +61 2 4447 1498
From Jim Wild’s, it’s just another two- to three-hour drive to Sydney. If there’s time, make a rest stop in Berry, a quaint town where there are little antique shops to explore and fresh cinnamon donuts from The Famous Berry Donut Van food truck to entice you.
For us, the lingering flavours of the briny oysters we had over the past few days was enough to occupy the mind as we rode back into the city. In fact we’d probably taste the river and lakes in our memories of New South Wales South Coast for a long time to come.
Where to stay:
– Coast Resort Merimbula and its cosy apartments, townhouses and penthouses make it a great choice for families. Don’t miss the Merimbula boardwalk within walking distance from the resort. For dinner, venture out to the atmospheric Dulcie’s Cottage, where you’d find great burgers and a well-stocked bar.
– Try out Tilba Lake Camp at Central Tilba’s glamping experience where you get to admire the stars yet stay comfy in spacious Lotus-Belle tents and serve yourself a meal with gourmet wines and produce.
– In Bannisters by the Sea‘s ocean deluxe rooms with private balconies, elegant white and blue motifs are the backdrop to clifftop views of the Pacific Ocean. Be sure to dine at British celebrity chef Rick Stein’s Rick Stein at Bannisters, for “fresh seafood, simply cooked”.
– Early morning, head to The Wharf Local, a pretty cafe-gallery at Tathra Steamer Wharf with great views of the ocean. Early-riser fishing enthusiasts would already be dotting the pier. When the morning light falls, every corner of this cafe is a picture waiting to be taken.
– Fish and chips at Innes’ Boat Shed on Clyde Street are worth a stop for. The fish, fresh and lightly battered was top-notch. And if you’re still hungry for oysters, they have plenty to go around.
– Book a tour (11am daily) at Cupitt’s for an insider peek into this award-winning winery, brewery, fromagerie and restaurant. A highlight is a visit to their barrel room where the winemakers share more about their fermentation process. Otherwise, drop by their Cellar Door, housed in a stone creamery dating back to 1851, for wine tastings daily from 10am-5pm.