Up until late last century, Australian oyster consumption was pretty much concentrated on the Sydney Rock Oyster, but that’s not to say that general consumption was to the liking of all growers. Up until the mid-Nineties it was impossible to find an unshucked oyster; most were opened, washed in fresh water and stored on polystyrene trays for up to two weeks, and even then were only available at the fish markets.
Michael blanches as he tells the above oyster abuse. To restaurateurs and connoisseurs like him, you could compare washing a freshly shucked oyster in fresh water to diluting a glass of 93 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage with cola. ‘Never, ever, under any circumstances should you wash, or accept washed oysters,’ he insists – more than once!
Happily though, a sea change has slowly swept through the Australian oyster scene, with consumption increasing by over 2000 percent in the past ten years. Most fish shops throughout Sydney now sell oysters both shucked and unshucked, and with this increase in consumption, not only has awareness of how to prepare and conserve oysters increased, so have the varieties on offer.
The most notable example is the Pacific Oyster, one of the most significant challenges to the Rock Oyster’s survival both in the wild and the market. This salty, meaty oyster is popular with consumers (over 70% of the world’s oyster consumption is Pacific Oysters), they cost less, are easier to shuck and are less complicated and thus less costly to grow. In addition, they have the nasty tendency to ‘go wild’ (i.e., spawn outside of growing areas), and hitch rides as parasites on the back of Rock and other oyster varieties.
In 1994, Steve Feletti and his wife took over a run-down oyster lease on Northern NSW’s Clyde River and called it Moonlight Flat. As he tells it, the learning curve was fairly steep: ‘There’s no science, no book to learn from…you have to get the information from your neighbour and hope that he’s not drunk’.
In this rare tale of functional cooperation between grower and restaurateur, Steve has been working with Michael for almost eight years, since the former promised to provide the Boathouse with a year-round supply of oysters. In doing so, he has become the first to trademark an Australian oyster – Moonlight Flat.
Their aim is to keep the operation small and run the estuary in a sustainable manner. With The Boathouse on board and in mind, Steve has also developed an exclusive range of oysters called Clair de Lune Boutons, a sweet, plump oyster similar to the famous Olympia variety found on California’s Puget Sound.
Things are currently going well for Australia’s oyster industry, though Steve and growers like him are always facing new challenges – including a recent tightening of food safety. But rather than bemoaning the often costly implementation of these restrictions, Steve believes that, ultimately, both consumers and the industry will benefit.
‘Consumers will know the origin of their oysters and move towards an appreciation of the many local varieties now available,’ he says.
In the process, hopefully Sydney Rock Oysters will hold their place as one of the region’s most traditional, historical and delicious foods.
Michael Klauson and Steve Feletti presented Moonlight Flat oysters at a Taste Workshop organized by Convivial Times and Slow Food Sydney at Danks Street Depot.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team