A weekend sampling the world's best little molluscs is the perfect excuse to explore Southland, writes Jim Eagles.
"The world's our oyster," boasted the front page of the Southland Times on the morning of the Bluff Oyster and Southland Seafood Festival. It might have been more appropriate to say, "the oyster's our world".
After all, what else but that luscious little mollusc would attract about 4000 people from warmer northern climes - not to mention several thousand locals - to a chilly Southland weekend?
The Bluff oyster has pulling power. It's the best-known thing in Southland - better-known even than Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt.
"It's our icon," says Venture Southland's marketing manager John Grant. "It's the symbol we use in our advertising because everyone immediately knows what it is.
"We leverage off it unashamedly to promote other attractions, like Stewart Island, the Catlins and the Southern Scenic Route, which don't have the same profile."
It was the thought of scoffing buckets of Bluff oysters that enticed me south for the weekend in spite of forecasts of icy weather.
I had the feeling it would be a special experience when the charming young Iranian taxi driver who picked me up at 6.30am in Auckland and told me this was the first job on his first day of work and then asked my advice on the best way to get to the airport (he also told a harrowing tale of having to flee his country in fear of his life for the crime of videoing some people telling jokes about the regime).
Things looked even better on the flight south - there was Southland's second-best-known icon, Mayor Tim, complete with trademark toothy smile.
And success was assured when 15 minutes after arriving in Invercargill we pulled up at Ziff's Bar and Cafe and I found myself tucking into a dozen oysters, sprinkled with lemon juice, and accompanied by some fresh bread and a bottle of Monteith's stout (though Invercargill Breweries' PitchBlack is even better).
Replete with what are undoubtedly the world's finest oysters, I was easily persuaded that Southland has a lot more to offer than marvellous molluscs.
The Southern Scenic Trail, which runs along the southern coast from Dunedin via Invercargill to Fiordland, must vie for the most spectacular route in the land, with the road along the West Coast. In particular, the Catlins and Stewart Island, with their glorious seascapes, marvellous bird and sea life and magnificent bush, are national treasures.
And if you think Invercargill is "a hick town with a population under 50" - which, according to Grant's market research, is what many North Islanders do think - you've got a shock coming. It has a go-ahead air, some great parks and recreational facilities, and an elegant city centre.
Our guide, Lynette Jack, says the city "was probably fortunate that in the 60s and 70s we were in the doldrums, so, unlike the rest of New Zealand, we still have all our lovely old buildings". Aucklanders should say amen to that.
You could easily spend half a day exploring the Southland Museum and Art Gallery - my wife and I did so when we first visited Invercargill a few years ago - particularly its amazing tuatara exhibition.
And the Anderson Park Art Gallery, a magnificent old mansion set in a beautiful park, has an outstanding collection of New Zealand paintings.
Then there's the majestic sweep of Oreti Beach, running all the way from Bluff to Riverton which later this year will have international attention as the setting for the film The World's Fastest Indian.
It's about the exploits of local engineer Bert Munro, who 100 years ago set world land-speed records on his home-built Indian motorcycles.
The star of the film is Sir Anthony Hopkins, but it'll be worth seeing for the appearance of the ubiquitous Mayor Tim, who plays an MC at a wedding, an experience which has given him a fresh fund of hilarious stories.
My favourite is his yarn about Sir Anthony's various body doubles. The main double sat for days in the wind and rain while the star was cosseted in a giant motor caravan; his hand-double worked on the motorcycles; his leg-double kick-started the engines; and his big-toe double was a Bluff watersider employed solely to copy Munro's habit of cutting his toenails with a grinder.
When Shadbolt commiserated with the big-toe double about his rotten part, the wharfie replied, "Wadda ya mean? I'm getting $2000 and my toes are going to Hollywood!"
On top of all that is a lively local cafe and restaurant scene - 20 new outlets have opened in the past three years. And before you sneer, Michael Guy, publisher of Cafe magazine, reckons the medley of lamb he had at the Beach House Cafe in Riverton last week was the best cafe food he's eaten this year (I had the same and it was sumptuous).
But then it's hardly a surprise with all that Southland lamb, fresh scallops, blue cod, crayfish, paua and, of course, oysters to call on. And speaking of oysters, it must be time to get back to the festival, which is after all the reason for being here.
It started in 1990 in the Bluff Town Hall, with about 350 people attending on one day. Now it attracts some 8000 oyster-lovers to a 6000sq m warehouse which is usually used to store fertiliser. This year, it was run over two days but even that expanded format doesn't seem to be big enough.
Looking at the enormous queues, Venture Southland's Grant mused, "Maybe next year we'll have to go to three days. Maybe it should eventually be a week. The demand seems to be there."
And why not? This, after all, is a celebration of what is arguably New Zealand's most famous seafood delicacy. It opens with a mouthwatering ode to the oyster. How many shellfish can claim that?
The taste of the oyster has even inspired Invercargill's Seriously Good Chocolate Company to produce a Bluff Oyster chocolate (though proprietor Jane Stanton admits the recipe is based on a cinnamon and lemon dessert known as the cinnamon oyster).
The festival is a chance for Auckland gourmands who think oysters are dredged from the ocean floor in little plastic pots to see just how hard it is to extract them from their tough shells.
The winner of this year's oyster-opening competition, Keith Lovett from Bluff, cracked his 50 in 2m 13s. By contrast, in the celebrity contest, television's Eva the Bulgarian took 4m 59s to open just 10 and even that was with a lot of help.
You can also drool with envy at the lucky contestants in the oyster-eating contests. The winner, Tom Sawyer of Invercargill, swallowed his dozen in 10 seconds. But it may not be as great as it looks, because food writer Guy, who took part in the celebrity event, told me afterwards the taste was "very salty, not particularly nice".
So, if you want to eat oysters, you're probably better off visiting the stalls set up by a dozen of Southland's finest restaurants.
There were 27 different oyster dishes on sale, including seven kinds of oyster shooter, oyster and elk pasties, venison, Guinness and oyster pie, oyster roulade wrapped in blue cod and panacetta, oyster pakora, pickled oysters on a sushi rice patty with a soy and ginger dip, smoked oysters Kilpatrick, old dark oyster soup ... well you get the idea.
Then there's the other seafood Southland has in abundance - dishes such as citrus-marinated baby octopus, smoked salmon and leek fishcakes, mutton bird on rewana bread, paua patties, tuatua patties, scallop in a dill Yorkshire pudding with a crayfish bisque, blue cod masala, a crispy cornet filled with smoked salmon mousse, and salmon gravalax topped with creme fraiche and caviar, coriander marinated mussels with pickled balsamic paua and crispy capers ... I'm sorry, my mouth is watering too much at the memory, I can't go on.
It's not the most charming of venues, and the huge queues and the cacophony of several musicians playing at once don't help, but who cares? People go to the oyster festival to savour seafood at its finest, accompanied by the odd glass of fine wine or stout, and there it is unequalled.
If you missed out this year, fear not. The oyster season still has a couple of months to go and the restaurants which provided the festival food will be happy to see you.
Indeed, in one respect it may be better to avoid the festival. They opened 4000 dozen especially for the event but when I went to buy a few pottles to bring home they'd run out. Someone must have been bloody greedy, because I'm sure I only ate about five dozen.