The oyster is your world

I am on Clyde River at Batemans Bay, paddling a kayak with former all-Australian sailing and windsurfing champion Ian Dewey, who is talking enthusiastically to my back.

Dewey, who started Straight Up Kayaks in 1996, offering guided surf and open-ocean trips as well as escorted river excursions, is giving me a colonial history lesson. He explains that Batemans Bay could have been the capital of Australia. It was named by Captain Cook after the captain of the HMS Northumberland, which Cook mastered.

The Clyde (Bhundoo) River was named by Alexander Berry after the famous Scottish river. The Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company discovered it to be navigable in 1854. I'm enjoying the history lesson and the tranquil scenery but the real attraction here lies beneath: the oysters.

Luckily for me, Dewey, a former oceanographer who also worked as an exercise analyst in naval weapons research, knows his molluscs.

Oyster farming began here in about 1860, Dewey says. Ten years later there was a fleet of 40 oyster boats and today 22 farms produce the coveted Sydney rock oyster, which is considered by many connoisseurs to be the finest of all the edible filter-feeders.

Dewey tells me the oyster's reputation as an aphrodisiac comes from its own hectic reproductive lifestyle - an oyster produces up to one million larvae. If they are "bored", oysters also have the ability to change sex; many males turn into females.

As Dewey paddles manfully around tomato sticks, he points out the marauding stingrays and calls my attention to the sound of feeding prawns. He points to a bird stalking the shoreline: "The oystercatcher is one of the world's most misnamed birds," he says.

"Oysters require neither catching nor even reasonable stalking skills.

"You can hardly stalk something that doesn't move and stays all day in bed. Oysters aren't exactly renowned for running fast."

Later, I'm on the landing outside Enola Rossiter's charming riverside Oyster Shed on Wray Street, where oyster farmer Paul O'Brien gives a masterclass in the art of oyster degustation.

He pours me a Bawley Point Gantry Chardonnay while I size up the oysters. My recommended accompaniments are the local Doodles Creek wasabi mayonnaise from Kangaloon as well as some Disaster Bay chilli lime and coriander relish.

I tip the oyster into my mouth and O'Brien applauds: "You've got a good technique there and well-practised salivary glands."

If my taste-buds could have blushed they would have; I have never had my spittle production praised or any duct flattered.

"You've got good ducts. They have been around a bit," adds my oyster-eating guru.

Years ago, in Cancale, France, I learnt that oysters aren't food. You drink them.

"You're a natural schucker!" says O'Brien, who works a four-hectare farm on the river.

Rossiter takes away the debris and some cheese and more wine takes away the salty flavour. But the intense aftertaste of the ultimate oyster remains.

"Oysters are the canaries of the rivers," explains O'Brien. "If the river is crook, so are the oysters. Our oysters have the best conditions; that is why they are the best. We have 70 per cent seawater and 30 per cent fresh water.

"The river source in the Budawang wilderness is in protected and uninhabited areas, mostly national parks. The Clyde is one of the last undammed rivers in eastern Australia. Only 5 per cent of the catchment has been cleared."

O'Brien says the taste of oysters depends on where in the river they come from.

"The taste gets more peppery the closer you get to shore," he says.

Rossiter, a former nurse, came to Batemans Bay from Canberra 32 years ago. Four generations, including her mother Betty, now work in the Oyster Shed during the summer; it's the only place on the Clyde you can eat oysters straight from the river.

"Real purists eat them raw. Natural grit and all," she says. "Nature takes its course and we just supply the infrastructure. We haven't got much above hunter-gatherers.

"Once rivers like the George and Hawkesbury were as prolific as the Clyde. But now our oysters reign supreme. They have the best growing area.

"No oyster farm leases are left and to get one you have to buy a farmer out but that doesn't happen very often."


Getting there: Batemans Bay is located on the Princes Highway, 280km south of Sydney, which is about four hours' drive.

Staying there: Clyde Motel has single rooms from $81 (single, budget room in low season), $125 for a self-contained unit and townhouses range from $185 (two bedrooms) to $225 (three bedrooms). 3 Clyde Street, phone 4472 6444.

Bay River Houseboats has boats from $560 to $2180. Phone 0410 512 253, see

Eating there: On the Pier serves raw oysters, as well as kilpatrick and Bloody Mary-style oysters, 2 Old Punt Road, phone 4472 6405, see

Chefs Cafe at Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Gardens, Princes Highway, phone 4471 2544.

Things to do: Straight Up Kayaks, phone 0418 970 751, see

Aussie Fish Estuary Adventures, phone 6495 9902, see