Sydney Rock Oysters
I was really pleased to receive the news that I had been accepted for a week of wwoofing at an oyster farm in Pambula. I love seafood but for some reason I have never tried an oyster in all my life. I think it’s because I’m not sure what they should taste like, and I fear that not being able to tell if they’re off I might end up spending the night on the bog!! Just like a few Christmases ago, when a cousin of mine kept saying how good the smoked salmon was, until someone else pointed out that it had actually gone off! We all had a good laughed, except my cousin of course. But here I was in safe hands, I was keen to get my hands fishy and learn all about oyster farming but above all, I looked forward to some deli for my belly :-)
At Pambula they grow the Sydney Rock Oysters, which apparently are the best oysters in Australia! Anywhere else you get the Gigas or Pacific Oysters, which are the most common type.
They are kept in large trays or baskets and looked after for three long years before they are ready to be harvested. The trays are washed with a fire fighters hose, to clean the oysters from the mud and loosen the ones stuck to the mesh. My job, on the first day, was to open the trays and shovel the precious content into buckets. Liz and Rod (my hosts) and Woodsy (an employee of the small business) would then clean each individual oyster from mussels and overcatch, a process called culling, and separate the large oysters from the small ones, which would go back in the trays for another 6 month, appropriately called put-backs. It took seven hours to empty 30 trays, and at the end of the day we had 35 buckets full to the rim of good oysters. A quick calculations revealed that I was looking at around 16000 dollars (at restaurant price) worth of oysters! Blime!! Let’s have another one now that I can :-) It sounds like a very profitable business, but later that evening Liz and Rod talked me through the figures and once you take out the cost of running the business and employing Woodsy, the profit they make is just about right for the work they put in.
shoveling the oysters
None the less, it’s a job they love doing, which is more important than making loads of money. Good philosophy, now let’s have another oyster!
35 Buckets full!
Oyster sorting machine.
On the second day of my visit, Rod and I took the oysters to an Oyster farm in Merinbula, where a consortium of farmers shared the use of a super doper sorting machine. I was particularly interested in seeing this piece of equipment at work because I used to design special purpose machinery as a mechanical engineer, back in Wales.
It was no disappointment, with a capability of sorting oyster by size into six bucket at a speed of 600 per minute, this machine was truly quite impressive! All 35 bucket (weighing 15kg each) were emptied into one big automated dispensing container. The oysters moved onto a series of conveyors and were singularised through two sets of screw-cylinders. A vision system would then measure the volume of each oyster and at the right time, trigger a jet of air to push the oyster off the conveyor and into the correct bucket. I learned that oysters are sorted into 4 main sizes, from the smallest to the largest they are called: cocktail; bottle; bistro and plate. I scoffed a few more plates whilst the machine was doing the hard work, and I found out another interesting piece of trivia, you know what they say about oysters being aphrodisiacs… it’s true!! Unexpectedly I started to feel like a horny little teenager and images of my ex-girlfriends were creeping into my mind uninvited, this was very embarrassing, but not as bad as the following reaction, which forced me to sit down for a bit and think about something completely unexciting, like the Pope! That was weird, especially considering that there were no women in site, only scruffy farmers smelling of fish.
Oyster sorting machine
Later in the evening, we had a great meal with most of the family. All three kids live near by and two of them have followed the father’s foot steps and become oyster farmers. It’s good to see such a tight family and they made me feel very comfortable in their company. It reminded me of many Sundays back in Sardinia, when all the family used to get together and have lunch at my nonna’s house, when she was still alive. We used to spend all day there, eating; playing cards; having a coffee and cakes, then eating again! I didn’t like going to see nonna, because all my relatives would pinch my puffy cheeks and pick me up. Also nonna had the bad habit of touching every cake before choosing one, which pissed everyone off! Bless her, I did like her cakes though, especially a local one made with lemons and savoiardi biscuits.
control panel screen
All in all, this was planning out to be a very good wwoofing experience.