On the Shores of Broken Bay
An immersive oyster-eating experience in Sydney, Australia
Gliding over emerald bays and sparkling beaches, our seaplane sets down on the calm waters of the Hawkesbury river and surfs over to Mooney Mooney, a suburb of the Central Coast region of New South Wales, Australia. It is a cool, autumn day, with clear skies, and I am taking a weekend trip with some friends to explore the coastline outside Sydney. Today we are on our way to enjoy something wholly unique: an immersive dining experience at an oyster farm! As our plane slides to a stop next to a mini-boat, my friends and I find a tall, affable woman with long, blonde hair and a wide, ready smile, waiting for us. She introduces herself as Sheridan Beaumont, founder of Sydney Oyster Farms (SOF) and our host for the day.
We climb in to the open boat for the final leg of our journey, while Beaumont chats with us about her family and the farm. SOF began with her grandfather who set up a small patch 15 years ago. A third-generation oyster farmer, Beaumont now runs the farm that supplies oysters from Broken Bay to the Sidney Fish Market, the third largest in the world. The tour that she now runs is an attempt to diversify the business and an opportunity to work with tourists.
At the farm, we quickly don workmen’s overalls and wade towards the in-water dining area where, what looks like floating tables, await us. In fact, they were anchored into the mudbank, but this in-water dining experience felt dreamy, surreal. All of us excitedly take our seats, as Jason, our waiter, lays out the table with glasses and small plates. While we wait for the food to arrive, we soak in the magnificent views as the sweet chirping of birds punctuates the air. Soon, champagne, a cheese platter, dips and crackers arrive, and we get a quick tutorial on how to shuck an oyster as we eat: twist the tip of the knife in to the shell and puncture the bivalve until you hear a pop; separate the hinge to open up the shell; cup it in your hand and slurp up the briny liquid with a dash of lime juice or vinaigrette.
The Dining Area
Once we’ve had our fill of oysters, freshly harvested from the waters in which we lounged, Beaumont takes us on a boat tour of the oyster farms and explains how they work. Oysters, raised from larvae (spats) in mesh lanterns, absorb nutrients from algae in the ocean. As pre-adults, they are transferred to baskets, graded by size and finally placed in trays and submerged in water to mature fully. We also learnt that different temperatures in different parts of the river can impact the taste of oysters just like the terroir (environment) affects wine. Sea grass and salinity can affect the flavours too.
Oysters have been a part of the human diet since the time of the early humans. Indigenous Australians have feasted on these delicious and nutritious molluscs for thousands of years, proof of which (as Beaumont showed us) can be seen on the nearby cliffs festooned with traces of aboriginal drawings. One of the oldest aquaculture industries of Australia, oyster farming has faced a slew of struggles recently—floods, disease, heavy rainfall—but fortunately these natural calamities never affected the quality of the oysters available here. “Oyster farming is one of the most sustainable type of aquaculture as there is a minimal burden on the environment, with no need to feed them as they absorb nutrients directly from the water and thrive,” added she. The area produces both the Sydney Oyster— considered by many to be the best eating oysters in the world—and Pacific Oysters that originally come from Japan and are now also grown in hatcheries in Tasmania.
As we moved ahead with our journey, Beaumont showed us a picture of her father holding a small bundle of spats, which she said contained half a million oysters! The leftover oyster shells are crushed and used as fish and bird feed as it is rich in calcium carbonate. “Oysters are truly the kidneys of the river, if they start dying you know something is wrong in the environment,” says Beaumont.
Beaumont's grandfather holding a small bundle of spats
As dusk approached, signalling the end of a fascinating day, Beaumont steered her boat back to where she first met us. As we started to drift away from this magical place all we could think of was the beautiful history that these oysters shared, and an overwhelming admiration for Beaumont’s passion to preserve oyster farming.