My history with oysters began nearly a half century ago at the Sarasota Oyster Bar where we occasionally dined out as a family, and from the perspective of a child; looking on with curiosity as our parents would casually order, “a dozen on the half-shell.” The oyster eating event always came off to me as exotic and something of a luxury—not for us kids. Our parents would down rounds of Beefeaters, and douse raw Gulf oysters with Tabasco; perching each one atop a saltine—exchanging knowing glances, before munching them down. To me at least, it was a preview into the adult good life.
Growing up as a Florida kid, nearly all of the seafood I ate was fried: fried Grouper, fried clams, fried shrimp, and fried oysters too, mostly piled up on a mound of french-fries or stuffed into sandwich rolls and covered in tarter sauce. It wasn’t until I hit my teens that I ate my first raw oyster; it was naked and natural, and eating it without flenching, somehow seemed to mark my transition into grownup land—after that kind of epiphany you never want to look back. Travel does this too, and food is so often the gateway drug to a permanent state of wanderlust. Once you experience a truly exotic food from a faraway land, it can open up more than just your palate, it can open your mind too, and this gets you asking questions; next thing you know you’re on a plane and hoping to find the real answers.
A lot of years, and close to ninety countries later, I find myself camped out in New Zealand, and waiting out the cyclone season up north. For the past several months, Auckland has become my adopted city, and The Depot on Federal Street, has become one of my favorite haunts since arriving here last September. This being the Southern Hemisphere it was Spring then, now it’s May, which means summer’s shifted to Autumn and the weather grows steadily colder instead of warmer, but for those of us who enjoy consuming raw bivalves, the Fall and winter seasons in New Zealand yield some of the best. Oysters like it cold.
My plate arrives, and for this round it’ll be six fat beauties from the Coromandel Peninsula, but today there are two more varieties on offer including the fabled Bluff, but Bluff oysters must be shipped up from the southern end of the South Island, and note to reader; the most common method of transporting Bluff oysters is inside a plastic bucket, after having been relieved of their life supporting shell. Certain unnamed establishments have been known to serve Bluffs in shells not their own—shells that have been cleaned and reused. The Depot being a most honorable exception, you can get Bluffs live in the shell here—watch them being shucked to order in fact, and by a very busy guy using his bare hands no less—But for a price, and when in season, and keeping in mind those critters were flown in from the far tippy tip of a country the size of Colorado. The Coromandel is a whole lot closer.
What? That distance doesn’t sound like much to you? Especially given that New Zealand oysters are shipped world-wide? Spend some time down here, and like me, you too will become a serious oyster snob. My pretension being well founded given that eating raw seafood is not without risk—raw oysters may be a top super-food that deliver 16 grams of protein per 6-ounce serving, are high in vitamins C and B-12, loaded with zinc, selenium, and iron, _but raw oysters (particularly oysters harvested from warm water like the Gulf of Mexico) are also potentially infected with a rather nasty, and on occasion, fatal, pathogenic bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus.
No great joy is without risk folks. Proximity always, Always being the prime factor when spending good money on something so amazingly, ridiculously, and deliciously fresh like the world’s best oyster. Yes, I agree, Sydney Rock oysters are very good, but then there is Vancouver, and the Northwest Pacific coast of the United States, which produce excellent oysters—France does too, I know because I’ve been there, and I’ve eaten them there—lots of them. And in a lot of other places; I once ate an oyster in Hong Kong that was the size of tennis shoe, but there is a massive export market in New Zealand oysters for a reason, and as good as those N-Zed oysters served in the best restaurants of Tokyo, or New York, can be—Actually Being Here is so much, much, better.
This being my second stay, and after more than a collective year spent living in these delightful Pacific Islands known to the native Māori as Aotearoa, and after consuming hundreds of raw oysters here, from the North Island to the South Island, and all points in-between, it would be difficult for me to proclaim, with authority, that hands down, the Buff is the the best, or the Waiheke Island oysters for that matter, or the northern varieties from the Bay of Islands, or the Clevedon Coast, or the more boutique varieties found in Christchurch, or Wellington—my favorites are always the freshest to be had in the location I happen to be in. An important fact to keep in mind: wherever you may be in New Zealand, you are always close to the sea.
Once opened the world’s best oysters give off a virginal bouquet derived of New Zealand’s cold, clean waters of the far South Pacific. The simplest presentation possible being the best: a tray filled with glistening half-shells that each contain a live animal still slightly attached and resting atop a bed of crunchy crushed ice, a succulent slice of lemon, an appropriately sized fork, and nothing else. No rock salt please! My god, whoever decided it was ‘COOL’ to serve raw oysters on a bed of salt instead of ICE is an absolute moron. It does appear to be a painfully growing trend, (notably in Australia) if you own a restaurant that serves fresh oysters and you serve wet half-shells clung with flavor-destroying rock salt instead of flavor preserving and enhancing ICE then you are an ignoramus who deserves what you get, which is a lot of loud complaining from people like me who care about what we eat.
The only salt I want to taste comes from the oyster alone and nowhere else. I want to be able to lift a shell and sip at it’s delightful liquor without commercially produced chunks of salt sticking to my lips. I want to take in the raw mollusk’s subtleties and the animal’s tasting notes, which, depending on the particular New Zealand oyster variety you are eating, can range from a rich nutty brine, to a near fruity sweetness. The deliciously fatty flesh of a New Zealand oyster being a particular pleasure: firm yet creamy—the Bluff being the meatiest oyster of them all—like eating a steak in shell-fish form. That said, the best oyster I ever ate in my life was harvested from its farm only minutes before I ate it, this perfect moment having taken place near the lovely village of Russell, in Bay of Islands, but it could have been anywhere in New Zealand—it was the closeness to the product that made the difference…
All New Zealand oysters being best accompanied, in my humble opinion, by an equally fat-rich-creamy New Zealand Chardonnay. Oh! Excuse me! If you ‘never drink Chardonnay!’ If this is the case then you probably only eat oysters when they are batter fried, or roasted Kilpatrick with bacon and smothered in barbecue sauce, or dunked in that horrible vinegar Mignonette, or smothered in Tabasco—shame on you. Try a Sauvignon Blanc then, but eat those critters in the raw—Au Naturale!
“Oysters are a perfect expression of their terroir, like wine, acquiring complex flavors distinctive to the area…” From the Breton oyster farmers association, France.
The reason the oysters are so wonderful here is because of the environment they are grown in; New Zealand is an unpolluted nature wonderland. Here in Kiwi Land, there are lots and lots of trails: mountain hiking trails, bush walk trails, wine tasting trails, craft beer trails—AND even an oyster trail. The flavors and character, the appearance of each oyster from each of New Zealand’s many production zones being truly distinct and as possessive a subtle symphony of flavors as the grapes in the nearby vineyards.
New Zealand’s wine industry being a fast rising bright spot as domestic production continues to grow in variety, scale, and, I might add, ever more serious—New Zealand wine can be counted as a respectable production region worth a visit all on its own. Food and wine now officially being Kiwi passions right up their with Rugby. Those dim days of the 1970’s, when Auckland had all of five marginally decent restaurants, are thankfully so very long gone. Gourmet plates of wildly imaginative variety, fantastical ethnic diversity, and created by chefs of every conceivable nationality, abound here 365 days a year, and are often so wonderful as to be intoxicating—have I teased and tortured you? I hope so, now go get on a plane.
A Post Script: It was several weeks ago that I began writing this post, and at the time of publication, only days since the tragic passing of the ultimate king of foodie-cool, Anthony Bourdain. For any of us who have written anything on food in the past fifteen years, to say that we haven’t been markedly influenced by this man would be dishonest—Bourdain made food writing what it is today. In my case, it was after learning of his death that I discovered that, The Depot, and kiwi owner/chef Al Brown, hosted Bourdain during his visit here in 2005. Appropriately, I made a pilgrimage back to The Depot, ordered a plate of freshly shucked Bluff and Clevedon oysters, a dry vodka martini and made a quite toast—thank you Mr. Bourdain, your reasons were your own, but thanks for being here…thank you very much…
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