THE CLYDEâ€™S NEW AGE OF OYSTERS The South Coast of New South Wales is home to a stretch of intricate and fertile waterways, along which the resident oyster farms lay claim to being the most environmentally sustainable in the country. On the Clyde River in Batemans Bay, two farmers are moving the oyster industry forward, each in their own way. Photography Damian Bennett Words Karen Fittall
The Oyster Shed on Wray Street. Left: Ewan McAsh and his team return oysters to the Clyde River after grading them.
Mark Ralston remembers a time when oyster leases were bought and sold on the back of beer-stained coasters. “I’ve certainly purchased one or two leases that way in my time,” he says, standing on a weatherworn jetty that creeps into the Clyde River’s pristine oyster-growing waters that are home to his 12-hectare farm.
Mark Ralston washes the mud off a tray of Sydney rock oysters ready for shipment. From left to right: the sign leading to the Oyster Shed on Wray Street, Mark’s farm gate; Mark steers his boat along the Clyde River.
Their working day over, a handful of local farmers would meet for a drink at the Batemans Bay pub, and the odd sale would sometimes be agreed over the froth of a pint. “But that was in the old days, back in the 70s and 80s. Things are done very differently now,” says Mark. Even so, some things haven’t changed since then – Batemans Bay’s pull as one of the South Coast’s most relaxing seaside towns and a gateway to some of the most beautiful beaches in New South Wales for one, and the quality and freshness of the oysters that come out of the Clyde River for another. Mark, who, like most of the region’s farmers, has made his living growing native Sydney rock oysters, puts that down to the unique growing conditions, which are a product of the national parkland that lines the river, and the salty, two-metre-high tides that wash through twice a day. Those conditions are the same reason that oysters have always grown in abundance in the Clyde, with or without the few dozen farmers that operate there today. Look around and every lip of rock at water level is crusted with clusters of tiny oysters. It was those oysters, the wild, unfarmed variety, that brought the Clyde’s first farmers to the river in the mid-1800s. “But they weren’t
interested in eating them,” says Mark. “Back then, live oysters were gathered and burned, meat and all, to extract the oyster shell’s lime, which was used to make building mortar.” Decades later, after the practice was banned and the river had been allowed to recover, oyster hunters returned, this time harvesting the shellfish to eat. “That’s how my grandfather started,” says Mark, “chipping oysters off the rocks or rounding them up from the river bed. Then he carried slabs and slabs of sandstone into the river to give the oysters somewhere else to grow. It was pretty successful, and low overheads meant there was a fair bit of money to be made.” Mark’s father’s turn came next. In the 1950s, he introduced the beginnings of what would later grow into the ‘stick-and-tray’ method of growing oysters to the Clyde River. It’s a method that a lot of farmers, including Mark, still use today. A third-generation farmer, Mark took over his dad’s business when he was just 21 years old. “There was never much doubt that I would do anything else when I was growing up. Oysters are in my blood, and I love it. But I’ve also fallen out of love with it pretty quick, too, at different times over the years.”
A freshly shucked Sydney rock oyster. Clockwise from top left: Ewan McAsh in his oyster shed; a view of the Clyde River; the wood fire Mark uses to keep warm in winter. Opposite page: Mark hauls in a tray of Sydney rock oysters.
A third-generation farmer, Mark took over his dad’s business when he was just 21 years old. “There was never much doubt that I would do anything else when I was growing up. Oysters are in my blood, and I love it. But I’ve also fallen out of love with it pretty quick, too, at different times over the years.”
Ewan’s oyster shed on the Clyde River; angasi oysters.
Factor in the Sydney rock’s three-year growing cycle, conditions such as ‘heat kill’ that can wipe out entire crops in a scarily short space of time, and the fact that only about 50 per cent of the spats, or baby oysters, that a farmer starts out with each cycle make it onto a plate, and there’s no such thing as a quick buck in this industry. “And then there are the Pacific oysters,” says Mark. Native to Japan, they were introduced to Australia in the 1940s and soon found their way into waterways all over NSW, pushing out native species, such as the Sydney rock oyster, in their wake. “So I’ve spent a fair bit of time fighting them off my leases over the years,” says Mark. “Then they started popping up on menus and demand for them grew. And because they only take a year to grow, the Sydney rock oysters can have a tough time competing. Suddenly, we were fighting the Pacifics in and out of the water.” The fact that Mark is now considering growing them, in a very controlled way, alongside the Sydney rocks his family business is built on, is a sign of the times in the oyster-growing business. “If you’d have told me that back in the 80s, I’d have laughed, said you were crazy. But things are changing in this industry.” On the Clyde, change is being driven by a new generation of oyster farmers, too. When Ewan McAsh and his dad, Kevin, purchased 22 hectares of farm 10 years ago, they knew nothing about oysters, or how to farm them. “I’d just finished a marine science degree, and my dad wanted a career change, so we went for it,” says Ewan.
“To say we were naive is putting it mildly. But we were after something sustainable, and something we could build on. Oysters fitted the bill.” The farm was relatively cheap to buy, but Ewan soon realised where they’d need to spend a big chunk of money: switching the farm’s stickand-tray set-up to the new ‘basket’ method of farming oysters, which used floating recycled-plastic baskets. Although each basket needs to be lifted out of the water several times a year in order to wash and grade each individual oyster, the oysters grown with this method don’t clump together as they’re growing, unlike those farmed on sticks. And that cuts down on handling time when they’re eventually harvested. “One of the reasons we switched over was because I wasn’t prepared to sit there for hours on end chipping oysters apart.” Ewan didn’t want to waste the time he could spend out on the water growing his business, hand-grading and washing his oysters, either, so he invested in an automatic counting and grading machine, which takes just a few hours to do the work that would usually take three men three days to do. It makes sense given that Ewan harvests more than 70,000 dozen oysters a year, selling them to such restaurants as Rick Stein at Bannisters just up the road in Mollymook, and Bondi Icebergs in Sydney. In the decade that he and Kevin have been farming, they’ve continued to grow the Sydney rocks the Clyde is famous for, but have also added Pacific oysters as well as angasi oysters to their crop to improve the farm’s diversity and resilience.
Ulladulla Oyster Bar
The Hit List EAT The Oyster Shed on Wray Street This quaint, aqua-blue weatherboard beach shack on the banks of the Clyde River is a farm gate for Mark Ralston’s oysters. You can buy them unopened to enjoy later, but with the glittering watery views, ordering the oysters opened to eat then and there next to the waters they were farmed in is too tempting to resist. The last shed on Wray St, Batemans Bay, (02) 4472 6771, oystershed.com.au Ulladulla Oyster Bar Baked, natural, served with a drizzle of dressing on top or simply freshly shucked, no matter how you like your oysters, you’ll find it here, served with a glass of your favourite drink. Oysters are opened fresh every day and you can buy extra to take home. Shop 5, The Plaza, 107 Princes Hwy, Ulladulla, 0419 219 275
A rare, large flat oyster that’s also native to Australia, angasi oysters sell for around $6 a pop in Sydney restaurants, and are described by Evan as a flagship oyster. “They breed differently to other oysters, which makes them more of a challenge to farm, but they’re worth it. And the taste is lovely. It’s less creamy and more meaty than other oysters.” Clearly, Ewan is an oyster farmer with big plans, some of which he’s already rolled out. “About four years ago, I had this light-bulb moment when I was watching people eat my oysters. They’d finished and moved on in just a couple of minutes, which, when you know how long these things take to grow, seemed like such a waste.” So he opened the Ulladulla Oyster Bar, a place for people to sit and savour a serve of oysters, with a drink. “People said it’d never work in a small town like Ulladulla but, slowly, people started visiting after work or on the weekend, and it’s grown from there. So things are definitely changing around here.” They are. Recently, Batemans Bay became a destination on Australia’s Oyster Coast, a newly formed ‘oyster trail’ that starts in the Shoalhaven region, just south of Sydney, and stretches down to Wonboyn above the Victorian border. Ewan and Mark are both on board. “Anything that encourages people to get down here to see how beautiful it is, and I don’t just mean the oysters, but Batemans Bay and our river, then I’m in,” says Mark. “To be honest, I couldn’t see much of a future for our oysters not too long ago, but now I can. I’ve asked my son and daughter to take over the business, something I couldn’t do until I knew there was a future in it for them. It’s great to know it will go on to be a fourth- and maybe a fifth-generation farm one day. The first step will be switching to new growing techniques, which will be costly, but for the first time in a long time I feel hopeful. Change really can be good.”
DO Narooma Oyster Festival This celebration of the region’s oysters is held every Autumn in Narooma, a town located about an hour south of Batemans Bay at the heart of Australia’s Oyster Coast. Taste test, attend cooking demonstrations and cheer on the region’s best shuckers at next year’s festival (May 2–4). naroomaoysterfestival.com Australia’s Oyster Coast Follow the trail that takes in nearly 100 oyster farms stretched out over 350km of the NSW South Coast, from the Shoalhaven region down to Wonboyn. Farm gate sales provide plenty of tasting opportunities along the way, too. oystercoast.com.au
STAY Bay Breeze Boutique Accommodation With its front row location on Batemans Bay’s promenade, even the ground floor rooms have incredible river views to go with their comfortable luxe interiors. Plus, the plush, king-size beds are likely to be the most comfortable you’ve slept on in a long time. 21 Beach Rd, Batemans Bay, (02) 4472 7222, baybreezemotel.com.au