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Looking for oysters and finding pearls in villages of New South Wales South Coast

Take a self-drive holiday to the sleepy fishing villages of the New South Wales South Coast, where the oysters are really making a splash

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Carolyn Beasley on 17 Jun 2018

The Straits Times

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If purity has a taste, this is it.

 

In my hand sits a gnarled, grey shell and its delicate contents have just been slurped down in one salty, creamy mouthful.

 

It is a Sydney rock oyster, an unassuming mollusc at the heart of a sustainable, multi-million-dollar industry that is now spawning a trend - oyster tourism.

 

It is true that when you visit Australia, you should see the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Great Barrier Reef.

 

But if you are an oyster lover, I have one tip. Go south. Far south, to the New South Wales South Coast.

 

Here, oysters are putting the South Coast on the map so I am spending three days following the Oyster Trail (australiasoystercoast.com/aoc-oyster-trail), a self-drive guide offering suggestions on finding oysters, other seafood and attractions of this under-rated beach region.

 

OYSTER ACCOLADES

 

In Sydney's Royal Fine Food competition last year, all of the medal-winning oysters were produced on the South Coast.

 

There is something special about these oysters, so I set out with my husband to discover more.

 

I start by hiring a car in Sydney - an alternate starting point is Canberra - and brush up on oyster facts.

 

Unlike fish farming, oysters do not require feeding, instead taking their food from natural particles in the water.

 

Oyster farming is eco-friendly and since oysters each filter about 20 litres of water a day, they are Nature's cleaners.

 

The pride and joy of the South Coast is the Sydney rock oyster, native only to south-eastern Australia.

 

Experts, including Australian oyster judge and seafood consultant John Susman, have declared Sydney rock oysters to be the best in the world.

 

Prized for their creamy, slightly salty taste and mineral finish, these oysters take at least three years to grow.

 

Other oysters grown here to a lesser extent are the native Angasi oyster and the Pacific oyster, introduced to Australia from Japan.

 

CELEBRITY CHEF

 

My first stop is the small seaside town of Mollymook, about three hours' drive from Sydney or Canberra.

 

This postcard town was chosen by British celebrity chef Rick Stein for his first restaurant outside Britain.

 

Rick Stein at Bannisters (bannisters.com.au) sits on a raised coastal headland with a gorgeous view through the eucalyptus trees to the dazzling Pacific Ocean.

 

Steinexplains in an e-mail that South Coast seafood is second to none. "Red snapper is caught in front of the hotel, there are yellow fin tuna, lobsters and squid, sometimes still alive when we receive them," he says.

 

But it is the South Coast oysters that have captured his heart. "I first tried them in my early 20s and was a seafood lover from then on," he says.

 

Oyster aficionados will love the natural oysters with eschallot vinegar or, for a party in the mouth, try the Oysters Charentaise, served raw with a side of spicy sausage.

 

SIMPLE PLEASURES

 

Driving south along the Princes Highway, quintessentially Australian food awaits in Tuross Head at the Boatshed and Cafe (facebook.com/Tuross-Boatshed).

 

Outdoor tables line a long jetty and, if I were any closer to the water, I would be swimming.

 

A local musician croons Aussie favourites as I wait for lunch.

 

I watch as a family stocks up on freshly opened Tuross oysters and the kids' favourite - fried fish and chips wrapped in white paper.

 

Fishing rods, kids and the takeaway seafood are piled into a small rented motor boat (called a "tinnie"), which chugs across the sheltered estuary, followed by a few hopeful seagulls.

 

The owner of the Boatshed and Cafe ensures that they depart safely and the kids in the boat give him a delighted wave.

 

As the boat progresses, small waves ripple outwards, forming a triangle with the tinnie at its apex and causing the reflected mountains to wobble.

 

It looks idyllic and I resolve that, next time, it will be me in the tinnie, having a lake picnic.

 

But for today, I enjoy my fish and chips in the sunshine on the jetty, with a cold bottle of Australian craft beer.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

 

Continuing south, a quiet coastal route to Bermagui traverses babbling creeks with old wooden bridges, just wide enough for one vehicle.

 

I stop to wait for a farm truck and I am thanked in the usual way: a single nod and raised index finger.

 

Approaching Bermagui from the north in early morning sunshine, I cross a 600m-long causeway with tidal Wallaga Lake shimmering on either side.

 

The road snakes through Mimosa Rocks National Park, where Wapengo Lake supports Australia's first organic oyster farm.

 

The fresh water entering this lake flows through protected forests with negligible upstream development and no pollution.

 

The organic oysters from the Wapengo Rocks Oyster Farm (wapengorocks.com.au) are served at local restaurants The Bermagui Oyster Room (facebook.com/bermaguioysterroom) and Il Passaggio (ilpassaggio.com.au).

 

Before leaving town, I take a breathtaking dip in Bermagui Blue Pool, a natural ocean pool constructed on a rock platform.

 

FAMILY FAVOURITE

 

Next stop is Merimbula, popular with Australian tourists for its family-friendly beaches and oyster-filled lake.

 

Here, I amble several kilometres along a boardwalk into the upper reaches of Merimbula Lake, while oyster farmers zip by in their punts, wearing waterproof overalls known as waders.

 

The walkway finishes at Top Lake Boat Hire (facebook.com/toplakeboathiremerimbulaandsunsetskiosk), where I recuperate with coffee, watching black swans glide by.

 

In the evening, I find oysters being served from a 1950s caravan at award-winning bar Dulcie's Cottage (dulcies.com.au).

 

The cheery 1920s weatherboard cottage includes a cosy paved courtyard, twinkling with fairy lights.

 

MAGICAL BROADWATER

 

About 10 minutes down the road is Pambula Lake, also known as Broadwater, where I join Captain Sponge's Magical Oyster Tour (magicaloystertours.com.au).

 

Mr Brett Weingarth - call him "Sponge" - is part-oyster farmer, part-tour guide and all Aussie larrikin. His camouflage-painted boat idles as he hauls in a plastic mesh oyster bag.

 

"When we flip the bags over, tiny pieces of excess shell are removed and this helps keep a nice rounded shape to the oyster," he says, explaining that consumers prefer an attractively rounded oyster.

 

Next, he holds up a flat plastic "spat collector". Spats are baby oysters and this collector has many attached wild baby oysters.

 

On the estuary's banks, Sponge points out aboriginal middens - piles of discarded oyster shells and a window to the past - dating back more than 3,000 years and he jokes that eating oysters here is nothing new.

 

As he shucks the oysters with a special knife, he explains that oysters thrive in unpolluted, sheltered waters, where ocean and river waters mix.

 

"Oysters take on the taste of their estuary, like wines take on characteristics from their place of origin."

 

As we slurp the oysters, he continues: "Clean and ancient Pambula Lake has given these oysters a sweet, well-rounded flavour while not overpowering the palate with salt."

 

Next door at Broadwater Oysters, Ms Sue McIntrye happily sells oysters direct to the public.

 

She explains that the South Coast farmers use non-polluting equipment and invest in local environmental projects.

 

The water's cleanliness is reflected in the shellfish themselves.

 

Unlike oysters elsewhere in the world, the ones here are approved for direct harvest, meaning they can be eaten straight from the estuary, with no cleansing or "depuration". They are eaten raw, right off their shell.

 

"Sydney rock oysters are incredible. They can be out of the water safely for two weeks, remaining alive and healthy until they are shucked," she says.

 

An oyster is freshest the moment it is shucked and the champion shucker whips off the lids with almost alarming speed.

 

Outside, the lake is turning pink in the sunset as I relax at the table with a local Rose, savouring a dozen of Broadwater's finest.

 

OCEAN TO PLATE

 

My last stop is Eden, the southernmost town in New South Wales.

 

Here, I join the Ocean to Plate snorkelling tour with marine biologist Scott Proctor (acwa.com.au) and find myself hunting for abalone.

 

The element of surprise is crucial, I am told, so diving down, I use one fluid movement to slide the flat tool under the unsuspecting mollusc, flipping it from the rock.

 

Later, we bag a spiky sea urchin and enormous blue mussels.

 

Scott cooks up the catch and adds to this ultimate picnic with prawns, local wine and cheeses and, finally, fresh oysters.

 

Dining on the world's freshest seafood atop the red cliffs of Twofold Bay, I am overwhelmed with the pristine beauty and delicious seafood of the South Coast.

 

If the world's my oyster, the South Coast is my pearl.

 

• Carolyn Beasley is an Australian freelance travel and environment writer based in Singapore.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.