Greg Dixon triumphs in a shucking showdown with Marlborough oysters.
It happened last Wednesday among a noisy, happy crowd of strangers. Last Wednesday night, I finally became a man.
I'd certainly waited long enough for this to happen. I am, I should point out, 46.
The thing that separated me from the men until last week was the thing that had always separated the striplings and sonny boys - whether 14 or 46 - from the competent, confident chaps who can cope with any emergency, culinary or otherwise. That thing is the ability to shuck an oyster.
I had, as a sonny boy back in the 1970s, watched my old man open Bluff oysters - with a putty knife! - in the garage of our Invercargill home as we hung around, like chirping fledglings, waiting for him to drop them in our mouths.
I had watched, too, at the Bluff Oyster Festival some years ago as manly competitors - men and women - had raced to shuck the most oysters in some mad, macho contest.
But, sadly, the ability to get the little buggers out of their shells had eluded me.
It is true that I had my dander up last Wednesday after arriving at the wonderfully welcoming Cobar Restaurant in Wellington's Days Bay. We, a happy, noisy party of 50 or so, had boarded an East By West Ferry at Queens Wharf downtown for an evening billed, with admirable clarity, as "Ferry The Oysters to the Bay".
One of dozens of events held at the Wellington On A Plate food festival, the city's annual fortnight of culinary excitement, Ferry The Oysters to the Bay included, among lavish promises of fine food and bubbles, the opportunity to learn how to evict these bivalve molluscs from their homes.
As we cruised across Wellington Harbour, the lights from homes above Oriental and Evans bays reflecting off a sea as calm as a Buddhist monk, we began consuming bubbles and our body weights in pre-shucked Tio Point oysters.
Farmed in Marlborough, these flat oysters are the same kind as those found on the bottom of Foveaux Strait and are sweet, fleshy and, as Tio Point's Bruce Hearn tells us, are shipped while alive, unlike Bluff oysters.
"We don't do dead," he said. Indeed his company, Apex Marine Farm, apparently also does its best to limit the "psychological distress" when harvesting, and delivers its Tio Point oysters to Wellington, Auckland and other parts of New Zealand alive and within 24 hours.
I have no idea how many of Hearn's babies I consumed on the ferry, mostly neat, but some also drizzled with bacon bits and Worcestershire sauce, but my mouth was empty long enough to join in the lively debate we had about the best way to consume an oyster. The consensus was, rather predictably, unadulterated and straight out of the shell.
Cobar's four-course meal was built around a main of Angus fillet, swede and cardamom puree, chive mashed potato, roasted cauli and red pepper and buttered spinach, but also offered more oysters - the first a tiny tempura-battered fellow matched with Marlborough salmon gravadlax, squid ink "caviar" and a tiny lozenge-size jellybean of beetroot and vodka.
However, it was the cold-smoked oyster that arrived in a little screw-top jar filled with seafood consomme, tomato, nori and rice noodles that delighted most. When you screwed off the lid, a little puff of smoke rose as if from a tiny hot pool. Wonderful.
But not as wonderful as my triumph just before dinner. At a table near the door, a chef was demonstrating the art of getting the oyster from shell to table.
Handing me a shucking knife, his instructions were short: push the knife between the two shells just near the hinge, wiggle and push, and then, once the blade is in, twist.
I struggled a bit. The blade wouldn't go in. A few flecks of shell sheered off. I tried again, going in hard and fast. Wiggle, push, wiggle push and finally I gave the blade a twist; there was a satisfying "pop" as the oyster opened. Victory! I only just managed to restrain myself from a fist-pump before sucking my prize into my mouth.
It was, I can tell you, the best oyster I've ever tasted. I retired back to the table, a man at last.
Wellington on a Plate runs until August 26.