Steve Feletti has one rule. Do not pre-shuck oysters. Oysters should be alive at the point, he says. That’s the law in France – in Australia though, there’s no such law, something he laments.
I head down the South Coast to chat with Steve about oysters, but also to see how the area is recovering from bushfires one year one.
Earlier this year, severe bushfires raged through much of the area. Fires tore through the forest, and the river water got so hot that oysters cooked in their shells. Mangrove trees burnt on the river banks. In the weeks afterward, the banks of the Clyde River were strewn with carcasses of wildlife who had tried to escape the devastating fires. One local paper estimated that bushfires burnt through 65% of the far South Coast.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the New South Wales’ South Coast, and not just because of the bushfires. They were closed off from major cities when the main roads shut during the December and January. In February, there was a big push to head back out there and support businesses that had missed out on summer trade. The ‘Bring an empty Esky’ campaign encouraged Australians to fill their empty coolers with produce from bushfire affected regions.
But then in March, coronavirus hit. In April, including over the Easter holidays, a busy travel time for Australians, the country locked down for most of the month. State governments encouraged people to stay home to limit the spread of the disease. Do not go to your holiday house, the government impressed. The fear was that small local hospitals might not be able to cope with an influx of coronavirus patients. Seven months on, Australia is doing better than most countries at suppressing the coronavirus pandemic.
The South Coast is only just starting to recover. Oyster farming is a key industry here, one that goes back to the 1870s, and the limited capacity of restaurants (and Victoria’s closures) have impacted trade. Local tourists are beginning to return, bringing welcome support to small business who have had most of the past summer with little trade.
Back in the cool of Steve’s oyster shed, one of 21 along the banks of the Clyde River, he shows us his prized oysters. He’s a fascinating man, having lived in countries Jordan, Egypt and Japan. He bought his oyster lease as a retirement plan – because he quite liked fishing, he tells us.
Steve’s Moonlight Flat oysters are sought after by some of Australia’s top chefs. It mustn’t have been quite enough for this oyster farmer, because his latest project is even more ambitious.
Visiting Languedoc on the southern coast of France, he tasted a dry almost saline white from the region. It was here that Steve found his second love – a variety called picpoul blanc. Picpoul vines weren’t available in Australia, so Steve visited the chairman of the picpoul growers’ association in Languedoc, showed him pictures of his oyster lease back in Australia and explained what he wanted to do.
The chairman offered him some cuttings from his own vineyard, and after three years in quarantine followed by months for propagation and grafting, ‘Borrowed Cuttings’ was born.
Except, it wasn’t quite that easy. Steve had to find a vineyard to grow the vines in and a winemaker to make the wine. He visited his neighbouring vineyard with a proposition, ‘Hey, do you like oysters?’
This year’s vintage is floral and fruity, almost buttery with a hint of salinity that makes for an excellent match with oysters or seafood.
Both Borrowed Cuttings and Moonlight Flat oysters can be ordered online – and you can support Steve and him South Coast business by ordering via his website Moonlight Flat Oysters.
Oh, and there’s a second rule – never tap rinse oysters. Tap rinsing, or wet shucking means rinsing oysters. Often used to get rid of any tiny flecks of shell, it also rinses out all the delicious oyster flavours and briny-ness.
And a top tip from the man himself. Store oysters in a cool place (not a cold place like a fridge), covered with a damp cloth. They will stay alive and keep for up to ten days like this.