Michael Klausman, the smooth proprietor of Sydney’s The Boathouse restaurant, is credited for being the first restaurateur/chef to ‘seriously’ serve oysters.
He and oyster grower Steve Feletti have been collaborating for almost a decade with the common aim to spread the good word about local oyster varieties. Between them, they’re clued up on pretty much everything there is to know about one of Sydney’s oldest cultivated foods.
When Captain Phillip steered the first fleet into Sydney Harbour on January 26 1788, the region’s Aboriginal inhabitants had already been harvesting oysters for thousands of years, with carbon dating of Aboriginal midden sites revealing oyster shells dating back 10,000 years.
Aside from harvesting, cultivation of oysters is no recent phenomenon, archaeological records stating that the Japanese were raising oysters as early as 2000 BC and the Romans from 100 BC. It is said that Julius Caesar invaded parts of Britain just to secure oyster beds.
Unique to Australia, however, Sydney Rock Oysters are only grown along the coast of NSW and a little way into the estuaries of Queensland. They grow slowly and are known for being a tricky, temperamental and labor-intensive crop. The final fruit is a creamy fleshed oyster, usually with a clean flavour and a river sweetness with a touch of salt and a tang of slightly metallic tannins.
Oysters are a sensuous, sensual food, listed as one of the ultimate aphrodisiacs, worshipped my many and reviled by the rest. Hemingway wrote of an oyster supper in his book, A Moveable Feast, ‘As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away…and as I drank their liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans’.
The colonial settlers didn’t take long to catch onto the plentiful supply of rock oysters that grew naturally along the Sydney shoreline. Harvesting began early and in earnest, but delicate oyster meat wasn’t the only incentive. The colony also needed bricks.
The settlers needed to build a new city for an attendant population, but they lacked a key ingredient to make the mortar – lime. Oyster shells when burnt live yield a good source of mortar, so they were crushed and scorched by the thousands. The lime used in Australia’s first Government House was made from oyster shells collected by convicts. To bind the mortar, hair (often human) was used, and in 1832, 400 Norfolk Island convicts were shorn and their hair mixed with mortar for early construction.
Eventually, seeing that stocks were in decline and that other steady sources of lime were becoming available, the governor of NSW banned burning oysters for mortar. Controls were introduced in 1860 and eventually the Sydney Rock Oyster began to be deliberately farmed.
Consequently, the Sydney rock oyster became one of the earliest foods to be farmed in the new colony. Cultivation began in NSW and Queensland around the 1870s, and the current annual production of around 106 million oysters is worth around $30 million. Oyster farming has now been the most valuable aquaculture industry in NSW for over 100 years.
A demanding crop, Sydney Rock Oysters have presented a fair slew of problems for growers from day one. They react to even the slightest changes in the aqua-environment and whole crops can be wiped out from pollution or water temperature changes. This sensitivity to environmental stress has one upside though, since oysters are a useful environmental indicator, with NSW Fisheries monitoring wild and cultivated oysters to reveal environmental damage well before it is otherwise apparent.
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