August sees the close of the Bluff oyster season, the end of those fresh seafood treats for another year. There’s a limited season. But there’s more to New Zealand oysters. Happily, this bivalve mollusc is available fresh, from a range of other producers of Pacific oysters, through New Zealand. Sweet, creamy, meaty, metallic and, of course, briny. There’s a huge variety, showing the tastes of this country. But why is the Bluff’s season so limited?
Bluff’s pretty short season
Mention oysters to New Zealanders who love them, and the focus is usually on the Bluffie.
Grown in icy southern waters, the Bluff oyster has been a New Zealand icon, probably since the first commercial shipment landed in Dunedin back in July 1861. There’s a notorious Bluff Oyster Festival in May each year, and oysters are flown around the country for season opening day lunches in March.
The dredge oyster (Tiostrea chilensis), our Bluff, was first discovered by Europeans on Stewart Island, though of course it was known before this by the early Maori of Stewart Island/Rakiura.
This oyster lives in gravel or coarse sand in the seabed, in waters 25 to 50 metres deep, and is “dredged”, and so the name. There are small patches around New Zealand’s coast (Tasman and Golden Bay), but the 1861 dredge shipment came from the Foveaux Strait. And it’s there where the largest beds are still found.
From there the oysters are dredged annually, from about March until August, and taken to nearby Bluff for processing. That explains the name. But, who knew…., the same species is found in Chile.
So why, if it’s so prized, is there a limited season?
From the early 1980s, the Bluff fishery went into serious decline, thanks to an oyster parasite, killing an estimated billion oysters between 2000 and 2003. And so, reduced catch limits were put in place, and beds were closed for a while in the 1990s. The fishery has since recovered, catch limits have increased, and there’s regular monitoring for disease outbreaks. But don’t think Bluffies are totally scarce, there are still lots of them, 11.5 million oysters in recent seasons.
And there’s surely nothing like limited supply to make something more eagerly sought when available….
And more - dredge, rock and pacific
But pleasingly, for oyster fans, there are other fantastic options, with three New Zealand oyster species. Our two natives are the dredge and rock. Then there’s the introduced Pacific oyster, which arrived in the 1970s and spread widely - think Te Matuku, Mahurangi, Clevedon Coast, Coromandel.
As with our wine, and our extra virgin olive oil, the oyster’s flavour tells of the part of New Zealand where it grows. It’s called the terroir, the environment, that gives each oyster a slightly different flavour profile based on its area.
The cleanliness, mineral content and temperature of the water are important factors, and leads to the usual way of describing oysters, provenance (or geographical location) rather than species - again, think Te Matuku, Mahurangi, Clevedon Coast, Coromandel.
Our iconic fish and chip shop
Who’s heard about oyster saloons - dining rooms through the northern South Island (Nelson, Blenheim, Picton, Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika), back in the mid-19th century. They offered oysters for sale in every possible form: in the shell, raw, tinned, bottled, cooked (soup, stewed, fried, and more). And they sold all types of fish and, occasionally, rabbits, hares and poultry.
Gradually, the name of the oyster saloon changed. Oyster and supper rooms became supper rooms, dining rooms, cafes and, finally, the fish supply (fish and chip shop) seen in every New Zealand town now. So this country’s ever present take-away shop started with the delicious oyster……
The Bluff pottle
But back to the Bluff, for a final thought. Most we find in shops are in pottles. Some have said probably 98% get shucked at source (Bluff) and tossed into plastic pottles before being shipped. Ever wondered why they don't get shipped live in the shells, as with other delicious oysters around the country? Others have wondered. There’s no clear answer. Maybe it’s just the way it’s always been done?
With those Bluff oysters, or indeed any other oyster, the argument often goes that there’s no better way to eat them than fresh, and uncooked. But, if the winter weather inspires you and makes you think otherwise, and for a special winter soup idea, click here.