Annual quest for succulent shellfish

Terry Osborne, of Bluff, samples the delicacy as the first boat unloaded at the port at the start...
Terry Osborne, of Bluff, samples the delicacy as the first boat unloaded at the port at the start of the 1977 season. The price back then - 96 cents a dozen.
They are part of everyday life in New Zealand, things of here or invented here which are part of the fabric of our being. Today Mike Houlahan looks at the story of the Bluff oyster - a true New Zealand delicacy.

Has there ever been a more divisive foodstuff than the oyster?

For some, even to put one in their mouth - let alone swallow - is a supreme act of courage.

For others, the shellfish is a delicacy beyond compare.

*Did I say beyond compare? For oyster devotees there are oysters, and then there are Bluff oysters.

The rest of the world consumes a variety of edible oysters, and has loved them for centuries - until supplies became scarce due to overfishing, oyster houses were as ubiquitous as hamburger joints are today.

The oldest evidence of oyster-eating dates back to Aboriginal middens, and their status as a tasty treat was possibly cemented in Roman times.

The shellfish were expensive, a required status symbol on the tables of the wealthy, and were - as the poet Sallust noted snootily - the only good thing to come out of Britain.

The Romans also farmed oysters, pioneers of an industry which carries on today in New Zealand’s more northern waters in the form of Pacific oysters.

However, it is only** in the icy environs of Foveaux Strait where the Bluff oyster dwells.

That environment is likely a contributing factor to the distinctive taste of "Bluffies" ... they grow in deep, cold waters.

Add in the fact they are a wild species of oyster - the only wild fishery left in the world - and that helps them taste more "oystery" than their more cossetted cousins.

Fresh Bluff oysters with chardonnay shallot vinaigrette prepared by Vault 21 executive chef Greg...
Fresh Bluff oysters with chardonnay shallot vinaigrette prepared by Vault 21 executive chef Greg Piner.
The wellbeing of that precious habitat is a matter of vital importance - the likely quality of each March-August season is much debated, and the closure of the fishery between 1991 and 1994 due to an attack of the bonamia parasite was akin to a national disaster.

Bonamia returned again a decade later, but thanks to careful stewardship by the Bluff fishing fleets the arrival of their oysters further afield remains an essential part of New Zealand’s calendar.

Plastic pottles are the main way the oysters are bought - with strict instructions to eat them as soon as possible before the famed flavour fades.

The true devotee though, seeks out a restaurant which trucks or even helicopters the shellfish direct to the premises and shucks them on site, for as fresh a briney, metallic, zingy oyster flavour as can be achieved.

In the alternative there is always the Bluff Oyster Festival - an annual homage to the shellfish, where more than 20,000 Bluffies are consumed in a matter of hours.

Nirvana or nadir? That is in the eye - or more accurately the mouth - of the beholder.

But there’s certainly no other foodstuff in New Zealand treated with the same reverence as the Bluff oyster.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

* In the interests of full-disclosure, the author could happily knock back a dozen raw oysters and call for seconds.

** The same species lives elsewhere in New Zealand and also off the coast of Chile, but no-one raves about Magallanes oysters do they?

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