As the Narooma Oyster Festival approaches, the opportunity for the ultimate oyster tasting experience draws nearer.
Most oyster afficionados quickly learn the basics of comparing the flavours of a Pacific oyster to the Rock oysters that are endemic to the NSW Coast.
“Regardless of where they are grown, Pacific oysters tend to have an oceanic flavour. Whereas the Rock oyster is affected by the weather, by the levels of grass weed it’s grown in, by the rainfall in its growing period, and dozens of other factors,” says Davin Charlesworth from Australia’s Oyster Coast, a group whose owners include 45 of Australia’s leading oyster growers.
But few oyster lovers realise that the huge variation in growing conditions across estuaries mean Rock oysters from one grower taste very different from those from another.
“We rarely get a chance to compare them side by side. When we do we can really taste the difference. For example, some estuaries like Narooma’s Wogonga inlet don’t have any freshwater rainfall: there are no rivers running in there. Others have high levels of freshwater and therefore have a different biological content. It means the taste changes significantly,” says Davin.
The opportunity for comparison is just one reason Davin is excited about the Ultimate Appellation Oyster Experience – a series of masterclasses featuring in the upcoming Narooma Oyster Festival (30 April to 1 May).
From a waterfront setting in Narooma’s The Inlet restaurant, each 45-50 minute tasting session will be led by an oyster expert (John Susman or Paul West) as well as a local oyster farmer. As attendees sip on the award-winning Borrowed Cuttings Picpoul Blanc (a wine variety considered a perfect match for oysters) they’ll be guided through the tasting experience of Rock Oysters from four NSW South Coast estuaries, as well as different species including a Pacific and an Angasi oyster.
“To really understand the flavours of a rock oyster you need to talk to the farmer who grew it. That’s a unique opportunity offered in these masterclasses,” says Davin.
Understanding an oyster’s taste starts with the 5 Pitstops of Flavour – each offering a different taste and textural experience. The oysters response to their unique growing environment, known as merroir, is complemented by the fact that its flavours experienced via different areas of the diner’s tongue.
“The adductor muscles are like the white of a scallop; that delivers sweetness via the middle of the tongue. The brine taste is experienced on the front of the tongue, while mineralisation is a back-of-the-tongue experience that lingers: it always makes me want to have a champers or a chardie,” Davin laughs.
It takes over two and a half years to raise an oyster, and given that rock oysters are endemic to the NSW South Coast this means that they are finite – only about eight million are produced every year.
“It’s not something that’s simple to achieve. Rock oysters are like a fine wagyu: the farmer has the animal for some time and the conditions they are raised under make an absolute difference to the final taste,” says Davin.
Farmers can actually breed their oysters to create a certain flavour.
“They can actually train the oysters to build the size of its adductors: the which will not only give the oyster a sweeter taste, but give the product more shelf life,” says Davin.
This year, the results of South Coast oyster farmers’ work can also be enjoyed through oysters purchased from the Narooma Oyster Festival’s Oyster Alley, where festivalgoers can purchase shucked fresh varieties of oysters from over six local estuaries.
While there, you may be able to spot those who’ve just left their masterclass. Not only will they be the person at the stall talking with newfound confidence about the anatomy of an oyster, but they’ll be the ones with the fabulous swag under their arm. Just like guests at the Oscars (or a really good kid’s birthday party), masterclass attendees receive an enviable swag bag; a gift from Appellation Oysters which includes one dozen Rock Oysters, a festival knife, cool bag and tasting notes.