Eyre to the throne

In the pristine waters of Coffin Bay on the spectacular Eyre Peninsula, a husband and wife team have dedicated themselves to producing the fattest, happiest oysters going to market in an industry that demands the best for luxxe city tables.

They say on the quiet days, you can hear the oysters “chatter’’. It’s a beguiling notion but when the clear turquoise sea has that still, glassy quality when the wind has died away to a whisper and not even a grain of pristine white sand is shifting, you fancy you can hear just about anything.

Oyster farmer Carly Thomson knows her oysters like she knows this remarkably beautiful stretch of coastline at Coffin Bay on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. After all, oysters are the family business. Her father, Glyn Owen, was one of the pioneers who established the industry in the bay.

Today, the 36-year-old and her husband, Steven “Thommo” Thomson, 46, run Gazander Oysters from the same lease her father once used. And when the tide goes out, the oysters pop up for a chat. “You can just hear them opening and shutting. It’s just a weird sound,’’ she says. “Because it’s so many of them, it sounds like chatter.’’

Most days, the pair attend to the dozens of rows of black oyster baskets suspended across 3ha of white sand bank in Coffin Bay.

The oyster baskets are lifted or dropped, depending on the weather conditions. Tonnes of Pacific oysters, or crassostrea gigas, are pulled onshore on any given day to be graded inside the processing shed in Little Douglas. They are then returned to sea to continue to grow or be sold when they reach about 18 months old.

The couple and long-term staffer Jacob Watson see emus on the beach and stingrays and tuna in the water. But where there is tuna, there are Great Whites. And when the weather turns rough, the sea can be unforgiving. The work is physical and never ending but the goal is simple: to create the perfect oyster with a good meat to shell ratio, a hard edge and a round shape. “You want the meat inside the oyster to really fill out the shell,” Mrs Thomson says.

The self-confessed foodie also wants to know where her oysters go and how they are presented. She has established relationships with consumers to understand what the market wants. For her, oysters are on top of the food chain.

“It’s a celebratory food,” she says. “You’re not going to be sad or upset if you got a glass of champagne and some fresh natural oysters. It’s luxurious and, realistically, most people can afford half a dozen oysters and a glass of something and feel like they’re the king of the world.”

Gazander truly is a labour of love. Mrs Thomson was living in the US where her husband, who hails from the Yorke Peninsula, was a travel agent when the 9/11 terror attack sent the business he worked for broke. The couple returned to the Eyre Peninsula by Christmas 2001, and began setting up Gazander on weekends while earning a crust doing landscaping and working in a restaurant during the week.

By 2002, they sold their first oysters. Last year, Gazander sold about 850,000 oysters mainly to wholesalers and restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. Their oysters are eaten far and wide and are served in some of the nation’s finest restaurants — at Hentley Farm and St Hugo in SA, and at the Bird Cage at last year’s Melbourne Cup.

The farm gate price averages $8 a dozen, depending on quality, size, market share and quantity.

“We’re not big and we don’t intend to be big,” Mrs Thomson says. “When we harvest our oysters for sale we hand-grade straight into bags or boxes, so pretty much every oyster that goes out has been touched by one of us that day to check that it’s alive and its shape is good and it has no defects and what we think that customer is looking for.”

Oysters have a long history in these parts. At Kellidie Bay are the remains of a small settlement once called Oyster Town. The oyster industry started not long after the British colony was first established.

Native oysters were dredged from various bays and sold to the public in Adelaide. In 1849, the price in Adelaide for a dozen Coffin Bay oysters was one shilling and six pence.
At the height of the industry, it is widely believed that about 30 cutters were dredging the Coffin Bay area, but, overfishing caused a massive drop in oyster numbers and fisheries ceased by 1890.
Later attempts to farm native Angasi oysters failed. The animal grew too slowly and died quickly. Trials to grow Sydney rock oysters in 1937 were also unsuccessful. In 1969, Pacific oysters imported from Japan and Tasmania spawned a flourishing industry.

Today, Coffin Bay oysters are considered world-class and highly sought after. Overseas markets are becoming increasingly lucrative for growers aiming for higher prices for their products, with the industry now worth $38 million to the state’s economy.

Oysters are delicate creatures. They really need a variety of conditions to grow into the luxury products so sought after around the globe.

The list of demands from a growing oyster includes all four seasons, low and high tides, lots of calm and sunny days and lots of wind and stormy weather. Lots of upwelling from the Southern Ocean and, of course, lots of food.

Mrs Thomson says, unlike land farmers, she uses no antibiotics, no fertiliser and no genetic modification. “We truly have to husband them as good as we can,” she says. “And we use the seasons, hopefully, to our advantage.”

She understands a pristine environment is a good precedent for the perfect oyster. The company’s processing shed in Little Douglas uses recycled water, solar power and an environmentally friendly chemical toilet. Used equipment, such as plastic oyster baskets, are recycled as much as possible.

“We understand for us to grow what we need we need really, really pristine and clean environments,” she says. “It’s in our best interest to keep it as clean as we can.”

Like any farming, growing oysters has its share of risks. Oyster farmers in Coffin Bay have not escaped the effects of the Pacific oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS) outbreak in Tasmania more than a year ago. The virus leads to mass casualties among Pacific oysters but cannot be transmitted to humans.

The SA oyster industry relied heavily on the import of spat, baby oysters, from Tasmania but the outbreak forced fisheries to put a strict ban on anything oyster-related to the state.

The two hatcheries on the Eyre Peninsula had to ramp up production to keep up with the rapidly increasing demand, while newcomers are setting up businesses in the region. Mrs Thomson says as a result they started buying spat from South Australian hatcheries that was smaller and younger than previous stock.

The reason behind the outbreak in Tasmania is still unknown, but Mrs Thomson says it’s a matter of when, not if, POMS arrives in SA. The only hope: researchers have found a way to breed stock that is largely immune to the virus by the time it arrives here.

“But it’s just like any sort of farming,” Mrs Thomson says. “When you have a good couple of years, you have to pay off your bills and your loan and make sure you have a bit of equity sitting there waiting to be used should you need it.”

It’s a risky business, but one the Thomsons would not change for anything. The pair and their three children, Gia, 14, Billie Rose, 11, and six-year-old Zephyr, spend their holidays where they live and work.

“Where else would you want to work,” Mr Thomson says. “I had a couple of gos at office and inside jobs but it just didn’t work for me. I actually really, really enjoy being out there. I love growing the best product I can, so, at least, I know when I put something out I’ve done everything I can to make it a good product.”

Recipe: 1802 Oysters Royale

Ingredients: 1 doz shucked Gazander Oysters
50g smoked salmon
½ cup crème fraîche
Sprig of dill
Rock salt to serve
Lemon wedge to serve

Cover serving plate in rock salt and arrange shucked oysters.
Slice smoked salmon into bite size pieces and place on top of oysters.
Place a dollop of crème fraîche on top of the smoked salmon.
Sprinkle with fresh chopped dill.
Serve with lemon wedges.

7 Wonders of the Eyre Peninsula

1 Sharks

Port Lincoln is the only place you can cage dive with Great White sharks in Australia. If shark-diving is not enough, Calypso Star Charters has launched the first tour in Australia that combines swimming with sea lions with cage diving with Great Whites, all in one day. Tours depart from Port Lincoln. sharkcagediving.com.au

2 Head of Bight

Providing breathtaking views, the Head of Bight, near Fowler’s Bay, attracts up to 100 southern right whales between June and October each year. Get your cameras ready. The Head of Bight is a marvellous vantage point with east and west views, about 70m above sea level. headofbight.com.au

3 Port Lincoln Railway Museum

Built from the old stone of the southern railways administrative building, the Port Lincoln Railway Museum is an amazing tourist attraction for those interested in the history and culture of the Eyre Peninsula. Here you will find an extensive collection of Port Lincoln railway memorabilia. eprps.org.au

4 Dry Races

Surrounded by the Gawler Ranges, Lake Gairdner is the third largest salt lake in Australia — a perfect location for the Dry Lakes Racers Australia annual speed week. Cars, motorbikes and trucks make runs for one-way speed records. Competitors and spectators from around the world gather at this spectacular location. dlra.org.au

5 Boston Bay Wines

Located in the harbour of Boston Bay, this vineyard is the perfect place to sample the Eyre Peninsula’s finest wines. Boston Bay Wines offers views of the stunning landscape and blue ocean. Open from 12-4pm seven days a week. bostonbaywines.com.au

6 Gawler Ranges

Made of volcanic rock that boasts an array of colour, the Gawler Ranges are a natural wonder that attract many tourists every year. The ranges also attract more than 140 species of native birds and a range of wildlife. The Gawler Ranges are a magnificent place to explore and, with a proper permit, an amazing place to camp. environment.sa.gov.au

7 Mt Wudinna

Mt Wudinna is one of the must-see attractions on the Eyre Peninsula. Situated close to the National Highway One, it is one of Australia’s largest granite monoliths. Several walking trails make exploring the area easy. Grab a picnic basket and enjoy Mt Wudinna. wudinna.sa.gov.au