Salty, succulent and totally addictive - all Kiwi oyster-lovers look forward to the start of March when "Bluffies", the creme de la creme of the shellfish world, come into season.
That means it's time for Soul Bar and Bistro's all-you-can-eat Bluff Oyster Lunch, one of the hottest events on Auckland's culinary calendar. The lunch marks the start of the season with a three-hour feast of the first day's haul specially flown to Auckland and freshly shucked on the restaurant's terrace by the best oyster-openers in the country.
The annual celebration, which this year sold out in just over an hour, sees patrons packing out the Viaduct restaurant to eat their weight in the prized plump Foveaux Strait delicacy, proclaimed by many as the best of its kind in the world. Demand is such that it is now held on two days, this year on March 4 and 5.
But the tiny port town of Bluff, at the very bottom of the South Island, is about as far removed from the glitz and glamour of the Viaduct as you can imagine.
Fishing, and in particular oystering, is everything to the tiny tight-knit community, one of the oldest in New Zealand, first settled in 1824.
The 500 punters (250 per day) who flock to Soul for the start of the season - among them media, advertising executives, real-estate moguls, ex-All Blacks (former centre Joe Stanley is a regular, though he can't make it this year), and even the restaurant's rubbish collectors - have the captain of the Argosy oyster boat, Willie Calder, and his hard-working crew to thank for their lunch.
This weekend, 2000 dozen of their first day's haul of Bluffies, dredged from the often wild stretch of water between the South and Stewart islands, will be delivered to Dunedin and then flown to Auckland for patrons to enjoy freshly shucked with traditional mignonette, horseradish and lemon, or cooked in different ways by Soul Bar chef Gareth Stewart and his team.
Soul's owner Judith Tabron says she loves the distinctive salty scent, which is particularly strong with Bluff oysters. "The smell of them is amazing. It's such a clean smell. That's what the whole [restaurant] terrace smells like on the day.
"It's that whole thing of straight from the sea and on to the plate."
This year's menu features a littleneck clam and Bluff oyster chowder, a creamy risotto with pickled cucumber relish (Stewart's personal pick, cooked with a very dry vermouth to provide a sweet contrast to the salt), and a braised beef and oyster pie called the Charles Dickens.
But a whole lot of hard work goes on before those delicacies reach Auckland, as Viva witnessed first-hand when we joined Calder and his crew at 4.30am one freezing winter's morning last June as they dredged the strait for the biggest and best oysters the area has to offer.
It's below zero and pitch black as we chug out of Bluff on the Argosy, and daylight won't make an appearance today until at least 8am. The swells are 4ft-5ft and the skies are clear, so it's considered a calm day by local standards, but there's just enough movement to make me green around the gills for the first hour or so until I get my sea legs.
Calder, now in his 50s, has been oystering since he was 16, and can trace his family's involvement in the industry to the 1860s.
The gentle captain, who has a startling pair of ginger eyebrows sprouting from his forehead under a greying mop of hair, is joined by five crew today - two of his young sons and a daughter, plus a lovely bloke called Dan and one of their mates, Brian, who comes out a few times a year.
You can easily tell a Bluff oyster from the rest, Calder says.
They're meatier, and you can eat them right out of the shell - and the crew does all the way through our trip - whereas those from other places need to be washed first.
"They're a real delicacy," he says. "They're the best things in the world to eat. There's no better oyster in the world."
Calder, who runs Direct Fish and Oyster with his wife Karen, tells of meeting a group of Irishmen during the 2011 Rugby World Cup who claimed you couldn't beat their Galway Bay oysters. Calder zipped home and picked up a few Bluff oysters for them to try. "After that they said Galway Bay oysters were the second best oysters in the world," he laughs.
About eight nautical miles out into the strait the boat slows to four knots and two big steel dredging nets go over the side.
We circle a sandbar widely for a few minutes before Calder winches up the bulging nets, dunking them in the water a couple of times to dislodge the sand, then bringing them over the side above the sorting bench.
The ropes are loosened and the contents are released with a noisy rush of water and shells. The crew, wearing bright orange gloves, start madly rummaging through the piles like dogs digging holes at the beach.
It's freezing cold, but before long they are all down to shirt-sleeves and, since the sea is relatively still today, don't get too wet, though they're all wearing weather-proof overalls.
Their hands are orange blurs and stuff is flying everywhere - as well as the oysters that are chucked into blue tubs, there are dogfish sharks, sole, starfish, baby octopuses, scallops, leatherjackets, monkfish, crabs and mussels among the detritus. Some of the fish gets pulled aside, everything else is sent back into the ocean via chutes under the bench or hiffed over the side.
Also returned are the undersized oysters - Calder makes a point of just keeping those several millimetres over the size limit, because he only wants the best.
When the pile is sorted, the process starts again, and continues for the next seven or so hours, while Coast FM blares incongruously in the background, before we call it a day.
This is hard, physical work, and there is no respite. The only breaks are in between "tows" of the dredges, otherwise the crew goes hell for leather, with only a quick dash down below for a sandwich from their giant lunch boxes.
Those precious discs are worth about $2 each, there are about 30 dozen (360) to a tub, and on opening day they can gather as many as 130 tubs, meaning a trip back to shore to empty the boat in between loads.
Soul bar held its first Bluff Oyster Luncheon about eight years ago, Judith Tabron says, because "you just couldn't get them [in the shell]".
"It always seemed a little sad that one of our premium products arrived in a plastic pot."
Key to the event is the involvement of New Zealand's fastest oyster-shucker, Keith Lovett, and his wife Raewyn, who Tabron flies up from Southland every year.
At the Soul lunches, he and fellow shucker Maree Bradley, who travels from Nelson to give him a hand, open an astonishing 300 dozen oysters each over about five hours.
Without these two, the event simply couldn't happen the way Tabron wants it to.
"The chefs are not fast enough. We just don't have the capability in the kitchen to open that sheer volume on those days."
Keith, now in his mid-60s with arthritis in his hands, has been shucking oysters since he was 7, and has been national champ nine times. At last year's Bluff Oyster Festival he opened 50 oysters in 2 minutes and 52 seconds.
When the Lovetts attended the inaugural event, also their first visit to Auckland, they were "very nervous".
"We were wrecks - we hardly left the hotel room," Raewyn laughs. But these days, she says, the annual celebration is one of their favourite times of the year and the pair are really close to Tabron and her co-workers.
"They're like one big family [for us] now. We just love it up there. We love those people."
Tabron often travels down to visit the Lovetts for the annual Bluff Oyster Festival in May, taking family, staff and sometimes friends, and has even attended a Lovett family wedding.
"It's been a really long relationship now," Tabron says. "When I first rang Keith up and asked 'Would you come up and open oysters at Soul?', who knew he'd still be doing it all these years later and what a success it would be? He knows all the customers."
Like Willie Calder, the Lovetts also come from a long line of oysterers, and have never known any other way of life.
"It's a good life. A healthy life," Raewyn says. Though she admits to getting a little tired of oysters, she says Keith never gets sick of them. "It's nothing for him to come home and have a hot oyster soup and then fried oysters and chips as well."
Shuck your own Bluffies
This year Soul is introducing a challenge at the lunch events for teams of two to shuck and swallow as many Bluffies as they can in five minutes. Up for grabs each day is a prize pack with two bottles of Mumm Champagne, a $500 Soul voucher and two Soul cookbooks. And the overall winner of the two days will take home an engraved "Shuck and Swallow" oyster knife. Contact Olivia on (09) 356 7249 or email email@example.com if you're interested in getting involved.
This year's two Soul Bar and Bistro Bluff Oyster Lunches are sold out. To get involved next year, sign up to the Soulmates newsletter on Soul's website, soulbar.co.nz. Bluff oysters will be on the menu until the end of the season.
- VIVABy Shandelle Battersby Email Shandelle