I'm sitting on a narrow wooden bench, half-submerged in the ocean in a pair of neoprene waders, on an oyster lease in South Australia's Coffin Bay. A glass of riesling in one hand, a fist-sized Pacific oyster in the other, I'm wondering how – now that I've tasted how much better this plump, creamy mollusc tastes, having been shucked for me within minutes of exiting the ocean – I'll ever eat a regular oyster again.
Our host for today, an ex-builder named Ben Catterall and the owner of Oyster Farm Tours, tells me he recently had some Chinese guests drive eight hours from Adelaide and back in one day, just to have this one-hour experience. Which is extreme, yes, but I'm beginning to understand why they did it.
Coffin Bay, set on the western tip of South Australia's Lower Eyre Peninsula, is world-famous for its oysters. The body of water we're sitting in, explains Catterall, has a small opening, meaning plankton are forced in and can't easily escape. "Basically, our oysters get to eat more than everyone else's," he says, placing the succulent oyster on the bench in front of me. "If this was from anywhere else in Australia, it'd take another six to eight months to grow this size."
Oysters have been farmed in Coffin Bay since 1840, when the native Angasi oyster was first discovered here. It wasn't until 1969 that the Pacific oyster, which is native to Japan, arrived in Coffin Bay to be trialled on this very lease. Until a few years ago, however, there was no venue in Coffin Bay where a traveller could actually eat oysters. Spotting this gap in the market Catterall, who regularly travelled to Coffin Bay on fishing trips from Adelaide, decided to quit his building career and open his restaurant 1802 Oyster Bar and Bistro in 2013, which he later sold. In response to an increasing number of queries from customers about how oysters were farmed, he added these oyster tours in 2016.
Catterall is, naturally, full of oyster trivia. As he continues to shuck, he tells us oysters are hermaphrodites, with the ability to change sex every breeding season, and that a single pair can produce between two and four million "spat", or baby oysters. He tells us how they're farmed, sorted, sold and transported to markets. The most important information he shares, however, is how to shuck an oyster in a way that will impress our friends.
Handing out small shucking knives and thick protective gloves, Catterall shows us how to gently pry the sides open, slice through the abductor muscle that connects the oyster to its shell, flip it over and voila, present a fresh oyster.
Unfortunately, it isn't as easy as he makes it look. My prying is more of a hacking; my slicing more of a stabbing. By the time I rip the top off, it's oyster mince. Which, I must say, still tastes delicious.
Soon, it's time to pull off our waders and bid the Catteralls farewell. With an hour to spare, my travel companion and I take a drive along the coast dotted with charming seaside cottages, at one point swerving to avoid an emu and its two chicks. As we snake through the national park, dotted with white-sand beaches and bush camping nooks, I daydream. Of holing up in one of the cottages for a few weeks, swimming and hiking and eating nothing but oysters.
Alas, we have a drive to do. Not eight hours back to Adelaide like those zealous Chinese travellers, thank goodness, although if I had to I'd do just that to have this experience again.
Regional Express (REX) flies from Adelaide to Port Lincoln up to eight times daily. See rex.com.au.
Oyster Farm Tours offer one-hour oyster tours out on a Coffin Bay oyster lease, from $40 a person.
The writer travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.