Bluff's unique and hard-won oyster festival keeps it real, says Eveline Jenkin.
As last year's Bluff Oyster Festival drew to a close, I approached two men who'd been assiduously opening the sought-after bivalves for more than five hours.
The demand had slowed a little by then and ex-oystermen Max Russell and Kevin Kerr were happy to have a chat. But if I thought spending a day in the South Island's southern-most town made me an expert on local culture, I was mistaken.
My question about how the "shucking" was going was given short shrift.
"Well, we've probably opened about 500 dozen," said Kerr, "but don't call it shucking, that's American."
"We're no shuckers," he added with a grin.
Fair enough. One thing I had managed to learn that chilly day in May was how a community can rally to save something it cares about, even if the task at hand seems rather daunting.
In late 2007 the prospect of Bluff's annual oyster festival going ahead looked grim. It had been proposed by Venture Southland - which at that stage ran the festival - that it had outgrown its namesake and should be moved to Invercargill.
The much-vaunted Stadium Southland, it was argued, would make a perfect venue and would allow the festival to expand into other areas. But Bluff's residents weren't having a bar of it.
Still smarting from the loss of what was arguably the town's most famous drawcard - the Fluteys' paua house - to Canterbury, they called a public meeting.
As the festival's promotions officer Lindsay Beer tells it: "The residents got together and basically said to Venture Southland, 'You can have your own festival, but we'll have ours too'.
"Twenty-five people put their hands up at that meeting and said, 'Yes, we'll do the work'."
Just 23 weeks after that initial meeting, the first community-run oyster festival was set up in a carpark on the Bluff foreshore.
The weather, it's fair to say, did not play ball. An icy wind was blowing off the sea, the rain barely let up all day and by early afternoon the mist had rolled in.
If the festival had been in Auckland, it would've been a washout. But this wasn't Auckland - or Invercargill - it was Bluff, and those huddled inside the marquees clutching piping cups of seafood chowder or tramping through the carpark's gravel in their gumboots were testament to the community spirit which saw the event go ahead at all.
Everyone had their theory about why a smaller, community-run event was superior to what Venture Southland had proposed.
Local identity Spencer Morrison, who carried the first oyster of the festival into the venue as part of the piping-in-of-the-oyster ceremony, reckoned it had all got a bit flash in recent years.
"I think they tried to upmarket it a bit and it didn't work," he said.
"It is much better now with all the volunteers."
Even Invercargill residents thought the festival was better in Bluff.
Lisa Hook had travelled down especially to show her support for the community's stand.
She said tension between Venture Southland and Bluff had grown in previous years and there was a sense the event had "kind of been hijacked and there was some elitism creeping in".
"I wanted to come back this year to say it's good it's back in the hands of the Bluff community," she said.
"It's their damn oysters at the end of the day."
Which raises the question, why was a change of venue ever even proposed? According to Beer, the issue was not simply one of regional rivalry. In 2005 an unexpectedly large number of people turned up and the previous venue struggled to cope with the crowds. This led to a huge drop in attendance in 2006 and 2007.
But perhaps the most pressing issue was the venue itself, which was an old phosphate warehouse. For 11 months of the year, Beer said, it was used to store exactly that and, come festival time, the venue still smelled of - well - phosphate. "And there was no electricity, no infrastructure in place," Beer added.
There's something to be said for Southland, though, that the controversy did not descend into an all-out Bluff v Invercargill feud.
Flying into Invercargill airport on the morning of the festival, we were greeted by none other than mayor Tim Shadbolt, who offered locally made chocolates and bid us "welcome to Invercargill; welcome to Bluff Oyster Festival day".
Later in the day, Shadbolt joined other local celebrities partaking in the celebrations.
Oyster-opening and eating competitions drew large crowds who enthusiastically cheered on the participants. My first half-dozen oysters went down a treat, their saltiness complimented with a squeeze of lemon juice.
A few fellow "out-of-towners" I spoke with suggested other ways to eat them, including "battered with a bit of sauce and bacon" and "downed in a shot of vodka", but Morrison said neat was the only way to go.
The Bluff Oyster Festival may not be the flashest of food fairs, but the star of the show is as good as ever, and once you've stood in that foreshore carpark with the wind lashing your face as you sample an oyster or 12, it's hard to imagine eating them anywhere else.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily between Auckland and Invercargill (via Wellington or Christchurch).
Getting around: Festival organisers provide buses to transport those staying in Invercargill to the festival location at Bluff (about a 20-minute drive). Check the festival website for further details.
Where to stay: Hotels in Invercargill book out quickly over festival weekend. The three-star Kelvin Hotel makes a great central base.
Eveline Jenkin travelled to Invercargill and Bluff courtesy of Air New Zealand and the Bluff Oyster and Food Festival.