by By Jane Sandilands
Oyster beds on the South Coast
Oyster grower Mark Ralston cups an unopened Sydney Rock oyster in the palm of his hand, holds it up at eye level, looks at it closely and says "that?s what we like to see". What I see is a fairly ordinary looking closed oyster shell. What he sees is the dark fluted uneven edges sitting up around the shell showing healthy spurts of growth. "That?s what we?re aiming for," he says. "That - and a good size."
Ralston?s lease is one of many hundreds on the Clyde River which winds from the headwaters just below Sassafras in the southern reaches of the Moreton National Park to Batemans Bay where the River meets the sea. A third generation grower, Ralston has the endless patience required of all those who make their living farming a delicacy that has been sought after since well before Roman times.
Oyster growing is the second biggest industry in Eurobodalla after tourism, with 33 businesses employing an average of two people each. NSW Fisheries figures for 1999/2000 record 540,085 dozen oysters coming from the Clyde River, 169,540 dozen from Tuross and 241,515 dozen from Narooma?s Wagonga Inlet.
Oysters take three years to grow, on the thousands of long sticks which can be seen at low tide on many of the waterways throughout Eurobodalla. The stick method of production was introduced to the Clyde in the 1950s by Tim Wray and the late Chris Ralston and is still carried out today. The work is labour intensive with each oyster stick being moved every year, one by one. And young oysters don?t have an easy time of it. They need protection from fish such as bream, from stingrays and from the sooty oyster catchers, the birds whose elegant long legs and piercing bill are designed to make them an efficient oyster-destroyer when they make just one hole.
Each of the oysters from the different regions of Eurobodalla have their own particular flavour, coming as they do from three very diverse estuaries. Those from Tuross Lakes grow in a barrier system, protected from the ocean and grower Michael Taylor says their taste will vary from bay to bay. Oysters from Wagonga Inlet at Narooma grow in a classic embayment area and third generation oyster grower Brian Coxon says that oysters are always a product of the environment in which they are grown and that the true oyster lover can ?always tell where their oysters are from?. Clyde River oysters acquire their particular taste because they experience high salinity being grown to the mouth of the sea and having two flushing tides each day.
Among many women working in the oyster industry, culling and processing oysters for market, Audrey Thors of Bay Rock Oysters at Batemans Bay is the only woman on mainland Australia to solely own an oyster lease, leaving her transport business servicing the steel industry for ?work in a beautiful environment?. Audrey pioneered one the exhibition of oysters at the 2001 Royal Easter Show and with Sydney fishmongers de Costi?s, showcased the oysters of New South Wales, educating the general public about the differences between oysters from various parts of the State. The exhibit won first prize in the food section of the Woolworths Dome with a mini oyster lease showing the four stages of the life of an oyster. She says that there?s an increasing interest in where oysters are grown and how the water in which they were grown defines their taste. And two lucky people got more than they bargained for when they found live pearls in their oysters ? a very rare occurrence in the Sydney Rock oyster.
Frank Theodore of de Costi?s says there has been a marked increase in public awareness and education about oysters. Some years ago, when the range of entrees available at restaurants increased, people predicted a decline in the popularity of oysters. Theodore says that today the reverse is true, with many Sydney restaurants including the Boathouse in Black Wattle Bay in Glebe offering up to 15 different kinds of oysters and Catalina in Rose Bay also specialising in oysters from different areas.
And in Melbourne, diners at Marchetti?s are offered a comprehensive list of oysters available which includes exact details of where their oysters came from. And it?s not surprising that oysters from Eurobodalla feature regularly on this list.
Part of the timelessness of the oyster industry is evident when you walk into the large shed belonging to a number of growers operating under the Clear Waters name on the banks of the Clyde. In pride of place is a gleaming French stainless steel oyster grader, and at the bench nearby, a man in blue overalls sits above a metre-high pile of discarded oyster shells, which he has opened at the rate of 30 dozen an hour in time-honoured fashion to fulfil orders from all over New South Wales and beyond.
In Eurobodalla today, oysters continue the great tradition of being one of the few foods that can be equally enjoyed at a picnic or at an elegant dinner with as little or as much fuss as you like.
To get the most from the oyster experience, sample the oysters ? plus a dash of oyster education ? at The Oyster Shed on the banks of the Clyde. Here, Enola Ralston greets groups of overseas and local visitors who come by bus from Sydney or other parts of New South Wales, take a short tour of the leases at low tide and sample the oysters. Enola prepares them in different ways: with herb and garlic, with lemon and tabasco, or, to satisfy eastern palates, with Japanese wasabi. And she is ready to pack several dozen oysters in ice for many of the visitors to take back to Sydney.
And while you sit eating your oysters in the sun at wooden picnic tables, looking across the Clyde River, watching the red hire boats bobbing and the pelicans wheeling low over the river, it?s hard to imagine that it gets much better than this.
Oysters In Batemans Bay History
Oysters from Eurobodalla have had a significant place in Australia?s history. As well as being a natural food for the Aborigines in the area, with oyster shell deposits dating back to 6000 B.C. in the Aboriginal middens of the south coast, oysters were also important from the time of European settlement. As well as being used for food, they were burnt for the production of lime needed for building in the new colony and large quantities of shell and lime were shipped, using convict labour, from Batemans Bay to Sydney. This led to a drastic reduction in a valuable food source and because of this, in 1868 the first Oyster Act came into force, prohibiting the burning of live oysters for lime.
Oysters On Sticks
When you see thousands of oyster growing sticks lying neatly in the water at low tide, oyster farmers have prepared them by nailing together of 25mm x 25 mm x 2 metre hardwood sticks into frames about 2 metres x 1 metre with around 12 sticks in each frame nailed about 25mm apart. These are wired together in bundles of around 7 frames and dipped in hot tar to prevent the sticks from rotting in the river and to make it easier to knock the oysters off when they are ready for collection.
Using the stick method of cultivation, each oyster farmer lays out at least 15000 sticks each year.
Thanks to Mark and Enola Ralston for this information
Sydney Rock Oysters are grown and farmed in the Eurobodalla region in the Clyde River, Tuross Lakes and Wagonga Inlet, Narooma
The Clyde River is 90% surrounded by state forest.
Easily digestible, nutritious, rich in minerals and vitamins, low in cholesterol, high in Omega-3, calcium, iron, zinc.