Award-winning oysters are easy to find on the coastal road south of Sydney, writes Renata Gortan
Common knowledge will have you opening an oyster at the hinge, but according to Sally McLean, a better way to go is through the outer edge.
She should know, the second-generation oyster farmer and co-owner of Jim Wild’s Oysters is the current Australian oyster-shucking champion.
“You open it from the fringe, then it’s just one motion to get in, cut the muscle and flip it over for presentation,” she says. Using this method, she shucked 30 oysters in just three minutes and four seconds.
Her parents opened the oyster farm in Greenwell Point 40 years ago and it’s still going strong.
This stretch of the NSW south coast, spanning 300km to Pambula is affectionately referred to as the oyster coast due to the number of farms along the coast’s rivers, estuaries and national parks. Although the majority farm the native Sydney Rock, there is also the popular Pacific as well as the indigenous Angassi oyster.
For McLean, the beauty of oysters is that no two are the same.
“They feed on the sea grass in the river, so every estuary has different flavours at different times of the year,” she says.
“In summer, Sydney rock oysters are creamy and buttery while in winter they’re more salty and sweet.”
Exploring the nuances between each farm and estuary is a wonderful excuse for a road trip along coastal roads and lush, green hinterland.
Leaving Sydney, it’s a two-hour drive to Shoalhaven Heads. Stay at Bangalay Luxury Villas, not far from Sally’s farm, where executive chef Simon Evans uses local south-coast produce at Bangalay Dining.
For him, it’s all about the “merrior” of oysters. Similar to terroir in winemaking, it’s how the water impacts the final flavour.
“I’ve found the south-coast oysters to be quite saline, with all that water coming through post-floods, which refreshes them. They’re some of the best I’ve tasted,” he says.
Two hours south of Shoalhaven is Bateman’s Bay, where Region X has a kayak-based oyster tour.
Paddling along the calm waters of the Clyde River, you navigate several oyster leases as guide Josh Waterson leads you to Budd Island, where farmers have their processing sheds.
“The combination of learning about oysters while you’re surrounded where they’re being grown and tasting oysters straight off the lease is a unique experience,” Josh says.
As part of the tour, we paddle up to Wray Street Oyster Shed where fourth-generation farmer Jade Ralston hangs out on the wharf to chat all things oysters and shucks bivalves just been plucked from the water.
Bateman’s Bay is home to The Isla, a retro-cool motel that’s emblematic of 70s properties along the east coast that have had a modern makeover to appeal to travellers. There’s a pool, common room with fireplace and an adult vending machine that dispenses everything from champagne to pre-packaged cocktail cans.
Further south and you’re in prime award-winning oyster territory.
Stop off at Narooma, an hour away, where the annual Oyster Festival is held in May. There are a number of shucking doors, but one of the prettiest is The Oyster Farmer’s Daughter. Sit on the shores of Wagonga Inlet as you sample Coxon Oysters and enjoy a short, simple menu of local seafood including fish, prawns and lobster.
On the way to Tathra, make a pit stop at Honorbread in Bermagui for some of the best bread on the south coast, and continue to Tathra Oysters.
It takes about three-and-a-half years for a Sydney Rock oyster to be ready for harvest, but these guys age them to 5 years old and they’re served in some of Sydney’s best restaurants.
Farmer Gary Rodely, says age intensifies the flavours.
“Your palate gets a saline hit, then a flood of creamy richness from the oyster roe and an umami taste that can linger on the palate for 15 minutes and turn into a sweet finish,” he says.
To try them, you must visit in summer. The oysters are grown in the Mimosa Rocks State Forest and come into season when the north-easterly winds start to blow and transfer nutrients to the oysters. They’re usually available from November to June.
While in the area, stop by the Tathra Pub, whose recent renovation has seen the poker machines pulled out and replaced with a microbrewery. There’s accommodation too, but Tanja Lagoon Camp provides the full Aussie experience.
This eco-glamping site gives you the chance to make friends with the locals, such as rare black cockatoos and wild kangaroos that hang around the property.
On the way back home, head inland for 40 minutes to get to North of Eden’s cellar door. It’s a boutique distillery, with only two 100-litre stills and everything is done by hand.
Master distiller Gavin Hughes made the first oyster shell gin in Australia, releasing it October 2021.
“We extract the calcium carbonates out of the oyster shells and that tells your palate there’s a creamy mouthfeel,” he says.
“We get them as a waste product from Tathra Oysters and other local farmers. We essentially use them as a botanical. Like wine, I think spirits should showcase the area they’re made in, we are right on the oyster coast so why not?”
It’s a six-hour drive back to Sydney but break up the trip with a fancy lunch at Rick Stein at Bannisters in Mollymook.
The English chef is renowned for his seafood cookery and the oysters on the menu are sourced locally. Try them with a simple eschallot vinegar or oysters charentaise, where they’re paired with hot, spicy sausages. You slurp an oyster, take a bite of sausage and a sip of cold, white wine for a new way to enjoy these local delicacies.
OYSTER COAST, NEW SOUTH WALES
Air NZ, Qantas, Air Asia and Jetstar all fly direct to Sydney from Auckland. The start of the Oyster Coast is approx. 2-3 hours south of Sydney by car.