Rich Oyster Waters

By Malu Lambert

Photography C&D Heierli

Lappop slices through the water. The boat’s wake disrupts its glassy surface, sending waves rippling across Pepper Bay—an apt name considering the number of sunken oyster farms floating in its depths.

Saldanha Bay recedes in the distance. A collection of white houses shining hotly in the sun, on a landscape typical of the West Coast: all grassy scrub and white sand. We couldn’t have chosen a better day for our field trip. The sky is as blue and still as the water below. 

“Oysters grow three times faster here than the same species does in Europe,” says Sue Jackson, a floppy hat shielding her blues eyes, as we skip over the water. Sue and her husband, Tony Tonin, run THE SALDANHA BAY OYSTER COMPANY. Also on-board is Ross Baker of Wild Peacock, suppliers of ‘fine foods to the hospitality industry’. He’s the middleman between the oyster farms and the establishments they end up in—and he’s brought along a chef from one of them, The Mount Nelson.

Kevin Ruck, proprietor of BLUE SAPPHIRE PEARLS, has come too. His oyster farm is adjacent to The Saldanha Bay Oyster Company.

“The bay is perfect for growing oysters,” says Sue Tonin. “The waters are rich in nutrients. That’s also why we have so many cormorants, seals, and penguins here.” Sue attributes this to something called ‘upwelling’. When the Benguela current passes the Cape peninsula, it pushes off the surface water, and carries the cold, deep waters into the bay. “Oysters filter-feed on the resulting phytoplankton.” It’s the plankton that gives West Coast oysters their characteristic sweet flavour, according to Sue.

It’s difficult to know when we’ve reached the farm; after all, it’s an industry submerged. We cruise to a stop amid a collection of buoys bobbing in the water like marshmallows in hot chocolate. They’re the key to the bivalves beneath. The oysters are suspended from ropes attached to the buoys, which are in turn connected by a horizontal line and anchored by concrete blocks.

Most oysters start off by being imported from Japan at the spat stage (when they measure around ten millimetres). During this period the ‘seeds’ are hung in cages and, once they reach a more mature size, they’re transplanted into black webbing known as stacks. This is only the beginning of the journey. Each oyster that ends up on a restaurant plate will have gone back and forth from farm to factory at least five times, where they’re sorted into weight categories, and then re-submerged. The entire process takes roughly a year, until the product is market ready.

Kevin explains: “The big ones dominate and eat all the food; so we sort them to give the smaller oysters an equal chance.”

There are five naturally occurring oyster species in South Africa. They’re known as ‘wild’, whereas the Pacific ones are ‘cultivated’. Sue hopes to farm the indigenous oysters one day. She’s in the process of leading a marine group at the Botany and Zoology Department at Stellenbosch University who are developing the research expertise needed to establish a South African oyster hatchery.  

“Young oysters imported into South African farms can bring with them diseases and alien species that will very probably affect marine biodiversity here,” she says. “So why not farm the indigenous species? The short answer to this is that we don’t know enough about how they grow in culture, nor do we have a South African hatchery where local oysters can be bred for experimentation, and later, commercial culture.”

Wouldn’t that be something? Imagine tucking into a plate of Proudly South African oysters.

Another boat pulls up alongside us. The crew onboard have spent the morning harvesting. Crates are filled with muddy oysters; marine life clings to them, like a tableau of the sea. “Who wants some oysters?” asks Kevin with a huge grin. He leans over and plucks an oyster from the mud. Nobody’s brought a shucking knife. Kevin grabs a diver’s knife with a rather menacing looking blade and deftly shucks an oyster with practised ease. Most people would have lost a finger.

He hands the oyster to me. Plucked directly from the ocean, it’s exquisite. There’s no need for the usual lemon, pepper and Tabasco. Author of Geography of Oysters, Rowan Jacobsen, says, “Like wine and cheese, oysters owe much of their flavour to terroir, the specific environment in which they grow—indeed, oysters are the food that tastes most like the sea.”

I agree with him. The oyster is plump, and tastes sweet yet salty like, I imagine, the rich waters from which it was harvested.  

Sue holds an oyster in the half shell up to our resident chef, showing him the various parts. “This black fringe,” she says pointing at the top, “is the mantle, and it pushes the shell to create growth.”

Kevin adds: “When the oysters grow rapidly, it creates beautiful frilly patterns in the shell.”

“Here are the gills,” says Sue continuing her dissection. “It’s the mechanism that filters oxygen and food. They’re the most amazing machines. Under a microscope they’re simply beautiful.”

“Or you can do this,” says the chef taking back the oyster and throwing it into his mouth.

Lappop chugs alive with a roar, breaking the silent oyster appreciation. Over the din, Kevin tells me about another must-read book: Sex, Death, and Oysters, which includes a tale about a man with a foul temper who every day would go out and eat oysters, each one improving his mood by “capturing that fresh life-giving flavour”.

On our way back we pass mussel farms, also suspended in water. We dock alongside the operation’s processing plant: in a clever system, the mussel platforms remain where they are and the plant moves around them to harvest. While we watch a group of workers scrub and sort mounds of black shells, we spot Sue’s husband on his boat, Imbaza (Xhosa for oyster), heading towards their farm’s outer bay, where the oysters spend the last two months of their growth cycle.

As we start heading for shore, a penguin briefly joins us in our trajectory. Soon we find ourselves back on the salt-soaked pier, the wood soft and crumbling; right at the mouth of the processing plant, which was once a pilchard factory. The Saldanha Bay Oyster Company and Blue Sapphire Pearls now share the premises. The former uses the space to clean, sort and grade oysters, as they have another factory in Pepper Bay Harbour, where the oysters are stored and packaged. Blue Sapphire Pearls is a smaller company and everything is done on-site.

There’s another company in the area, WEST COAST AQUACULTURE, which produces both mussels and oysters. They’re situated just across from The Saldanha Bay Oyster Company in Pepper Bay Harbour; but at the moment they’re out at sea, harvesting.

We watch a group of workers clean oysters by hand, scraping off seaweed, barnacles and micro-organisms, and Kevin says, “The best time to eat oysters is in the colder months.” Summer is the spawning season, and this produces off-putting milky oysters. “They taste so much better in winter. So why not down to the pub for a glass of whisky and a plate of oysters?”

Why not, indeed.

Aw, Shucks—Where to Get Saldanha Bay Oysters

Good news for oyster lovers; there are future plans for the various companies to come together to offer boat trips to the farms as well as oyster tastings. In the meantime, here’s where to buy and eat the marvellous molluscs.

Shops

There can’t be a fresher way to eat oysters than getting them straight from the factory. THE SALDANHA BAY OYSTER COMPANY sells bags of 50 oysters direct; call them on 022-714-0321 to pre-order. Lot 6, Pepper Bay, Saldanha Bay

If you’d prefer a smaller portion, pop into CHARLIE’S FISH SHOP just down the road, and just as fresh. Call 022-714-1813 to make sure they’re in stock. 50 Camp Street, Saldanha Bay

WILD PEACOCK doesn’t supply only to the hospitality trade; they also have a FOOD EMPORIUM in Stellenbosch. Call 021-887-7585 to order West Coast oysters, or simply pay them a visit and enjoy a dozen in the deli. 30 Piet Retief Street, Stellenbosch

Find oysters from BLUE SAPPHIRE PEARLS in Kommetjie at ISLAND SEAFOOD

Heron Park, Kommetjie Road, Kommetjie

Or contact THE OYSTER LADY, a regular at Cape Town’s markets, plus you can order directly from her on 082-572-983.

Restaurants

Let someone else take care of the shucking for you. Wild Peacock supplies oysters from The Saldanha Bay Oyster Company to these restaurants, among others:

The Mount Nelson Hotel. 76 Orange Street, Cape Town, 021-483-1000

Clarke’s. 133 Bree Street, Cape Town, 021-424-7648

Le Quartier Français. 16 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek, 021-876-2151

Rust en Vrede. Rust en Vrede Wine Estate, Annandale Road, Stellenbosch, 021-881-3881 

Constantia Uitsig. Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia, 021-794-3010 

Steffanie’s Place. 113 Irene Avenue, Somerset West, 021-852-7584