We've all got a good the-first-time-I-tasted-oysters story. You were probably on holidays somewhere at the coast, buying them direct from the farmer, or perhaps in a fancy restaurant ordering them by the half-dozen as a starter.
And it's a rite of passage as a parent to convince your children to just try one, be game enough to down that slippery little piece of salty flesh. Just swallow it.
Paul West - chef, author, television presenter, and now ambassador of the Narooma Oyster Festival - remembers his first taste of the hermaphroditic bivalve.
"I grew up in Murrurundi, a little place inland in the Hunter Valley, and we used to go to Wallis Lakes, near Forster-Tuncurry for our summer holidays," he says.
"I can't remember how old I was but I remember dad cooking them on the barbecue, kilpatrick style, with plenty of bacon and Worcestershire sauce, and I really loved them.
"I got quite a taste for them, much to my parent's dismay, because it meant that they had to share them."
The Narooma Oyster Festival, from April 30 to May 1, is a two-day celebration of the south coast's finest produce, both from sea and land.
There's a cooking program that matches visiting chefs with local producers, dinners, tastings, food and wine market stalls, family entertainment, live music and the popular oyster shucking competition.
The festival kicks off Friday evening with two sold out dinners: the Long Table Dinner and the For the Love of the Land Dinner which showcase the local produce. From 4pm, there's live entertainment and food stalls with fireworks at 8.30pm.
On Saturday, gates open at 10am, with oysters all day, alongside live music, the shucking competition, and tasting masterclasses.
The award-winning festival's growth and popularity has made it the NSW South Coast's hallmark food event attracting more than 5000 visitors every year and contributing almost $1 million directly to the local economy.
Showcasing and celebrating the region's oysters and their pristine environment is the key attraction for visitors with more than 45,000 oysters consumed in 2019.
The event was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID, and safety measures have been put in place for the 2021 event. All tickets must be pre-purchased and are available from naroomaoysterfestival.com
West, best known for spending a couple of seasons on the River Cottage farm in Central Tilba, has been living in Bermagui with his young family for a while now and has fallen in love with the region.
"We're spoiled for natural beauty here on the south coast," he says.
"We've got magnificent, clean, pure waterways, the offshore coastal environment, and then you've got the wilderness areas and the farmland at the back. When it comes to accessing the natural world, and that's something that I've always valued in my life, we're very lucky."
Cath Peachey, chair of the festival, is another who has been lured by the south coast. The former high-level public servant has been involved in the delivery of the festival since 2012.
"Most Canberrans know the south coast for its beautiful beaches, nature trails and relaxed lifestyle, perhaps not so much for the local produce," Peachey says.
"The festival provides an opportunity to immerse themselves in rock oyster country and sampling these delicious morsels, but also all the wonderful other produce like abalone, sea urchin roe, dairy, lamb, honey and all sorts of fresh produce, it is heaven for foodies down here."
Ultimate Appellation Oyster experience
This is the ultimate oyster masterclass and my top pick of what not to miss this year. Guests will be guided through a tasting of Rock Oysters from four NSW south coast estuaries before finishing with a Pacific Oyster and Angasi Oyster to show the differences between oyster species. You'll learn about the concept of "merroir" and become an expert in the five pit stops of flavour. It's educational and delicious, and the gift bag includes even more Rock Oysters and a shucking guide, because we all know shucking is a life skill.
This year's cooking demonstrations celebrate the close relationship between producer and chef, and I'm excited for every single chef and producer match on the program. For example, Pialligo Estate's executive chef Mark Glenn is on stage with Narooma Abalone and chef Sean Connolly is on stage with Mimosa Rock Oysters. Those lucky enough to have a front seat at the demonstrations will get to taste some samples. Yum!
The shucking competition is Narooma's version of the Melbourne Cup - and the title is seriously coveted by our local oyster farmers. The biggest oyster competition is another family friendly favourite, and word on the waters this year is that 2019 Guinness Book of Records contender Jack is back and has doubled in size.
Champagne oyster cruises
Cruise the blue waters of Wagonga Inlet passing local oyster leases aboard the Wagonga Princess, quite possibly the oldest commercially operating vessel in Australia. These 50-minute cruises are a great way to view Narooma while enjoying Wagonga Inlet Rock Oysters, local cheeses and a piccolo of Pommery Champagne or a craft beer from local brewer, Big Niles.
River of Arts precinct
We have joined forces with Eurobodalla's other hallmark event, River of Art, to create a vibrant art precinct with art displays and stalls, an interactive live mural, and animated art display. This is going to be a very special space showcasing our creative folk and local culture and is worth taking a break from all the oyster eating to check it out.
A taste of place
The wine industry has a unique word, terroir, for the special alchemy that occurs when environmental factors, farming practices, the attributes of land and soil from a specific place combine to create the flavour profile of a wine.
Like wine, the flavours and textures of an oyster are determined by the unique environmental attributes of the marine ecosystem in which the oysters are cultivated. The industry works for a little known "merroir" system, which similarly distinguishes an oyster based on its marine environment, as well as the farming and harvesting practices of the estuary in which it is grown.
For example, Narooma's famed Wagonga Inlet, which has long been home to extensive oyster leases, has the lowest freshwater input of any system in NSW, salinity is consistently high and is almost equal to the open ocean. This results in a Rock Oyster renowned for its oceanic, briny front palette and a light mineral finish.
The colloquial name "Sydney Rock Oyster" can be confusing, as no Rock Oysters are produced in Sydney itself. The term applies to oysters grown from Moreton Bay in south-east Queensland to Mallacoota on the border of Victoria and NSW. The Rock Oyster is indigenous to Australia and to NSW as well.
The Pacific Oyster is native to Japan and was introduced into a number of countries including Australia, particularly Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, with some leases in NSW and southern Queensland.
Difficult to come by due to its scarcity, Australia's rare native Angasi Oyster is a cousin to the famous flat Belon oysters from France. This is the oyster lover's oyster - full-bodied, finely textured and rich in flavour.
How to open an oyster
Oysters are best served freshly shucked. Learning the art of shucking will maximise the quality and eating pleasure.
Take an oyster and with the cup of the shell facing down, wrap it in a clean cloth with the pointed hinge of the oyster facing out.
Place the cloth on a board, on a stable surface and hold down firmly.
Insert the oyster knife into the join between the top and bottom shells at approximately a 15 degree angle to the bottom shell.
Moving the knife in a rhythmical rocking motion, push the knife into the hinge until it has purchase, firmly wedged between the top and bottom shell.
The hard part
With the oyster knife firmly wedged between the top and bottom shell, hold the oyster firmly in the cloth.
Twist the oyster knife sharply as if accelerating on a motorcycle and listen for the "pop" as the hinge gives way.
The hard part of opening the shell is now complete.
With the hinge now broken, slide the oyster knife gently along the top lid.
Agt the two o'clock position on the top lid is the adductor muscle which holds the top and bottom shells together.
Simply slide the oyster knife through this muscle to release the top shell.
Having removed the top lid, snip the adductor muscle on the bottom shell to release the oyster.
If you want, you can turn the oyster over to have its "belly" facing up (like they do in the shops with pre-opened oysters): gently slide the blade of the oyster knife under the gills and body of the oyster and roll the oyster over in the shell - this also allows you to check if there are any mudworms hidden under the oyster and ensures that the oyster will expel its natural liquor.
Try to keep as much of the oyster's natural liquor in the shell as possible - it is delicious and is one of the things that makes a freshly "shucked" oyster so good.
The oysters are now ready to serve - place them on a bed of ice or salt to stop them tipping over and enjoy!
The epitome of luxury and indulgence has always been oysters and Champagne. The richness and fat of oysters enjoys the acid of a range of beverages fron beer to sherry and sake and, of course, wine. A simple principle is that the beverage should have just enough acid and fruit to complement the sweet glycogen or fat of the oyster and not to overpower the salty and sweet flavours of the oyster.
The reserved fruit and complex acidity of a chablis is a classic accompaniment, so too a riesling or a semillon.
Beer is just as satisfying, either a dark or stout which works with the oyster's complex umami and sweetness or a Belgian white, German pilsner, or even fruity Australian craft beer style that complements the oyster's minerality and brininess.
Recipe: Oyster and leek soup
Sean Connelly's shared a recipe from the cooking program of the festival
1 large leek
100ml dry vermouth or dry white wine
500ml fish stock
Murray River pink salt to taste
6 twists of freshly ground white pepper
1. Melt butter in a pot on the stove.
2. Wash and dice leeks only using the white and yellow of the leek, discard the dark green. Drain and dry off and add the leeks to the melted butter.
3. Once softened add the six oysters and continue to gently sauté.
4. Once the oyster are cooked add the alcohol.
5. Let the alcohol fizz and burn off for a moment the add the stock and simmer for five minutes.
6. Then add the cream and simmer for a further five minutes.
7. Season with salt and pepper.
8. Purée the hot soup with a hand blender and once smooth you can serve immediately with croutons or thick slices of warm crusty loaf and salted butter.
Note: If you want to make the soup chunkier add fresh oysters and more buttery leeks, this is not necessary but it will take it to the next level of luxury.