Written by Lilani Goonesena
Ben Cameron holds up a big metal pot with a layer of brownish sand at the bottom. We peer at it curiously.
“That’s about 250,000 baby oysters”, he says.
The group is momentarily speechless. It’s understandably a mouthful – or more – to take in.
This is how baby oysters start off in the world. And at least half of all oysters produced in Australia come from Cameron’s Oysters, one of only two commercial hatcheries in Australia.
Ben Cameron is a 3rd generation oyster farmer and general manager of the company. His grandfather started the company in 1971 and opened the hatchery eight years later. It was a shrewd move. Today the company’s ‘vertical integration’ means they can breed, grow and process oysters in the one company, on a scale unmatched in Australia.
We are lucky enough to see Cameron’s operation for ourselves on the first day of our Electrolux Appetite for Excellence produce tour in Tasmania. It’s a cold, crisp afternoon out at Dunalley, about an hour east of Hobart.
Cameron’s processing plant handles five million oysters a year. Out the back a metal pulley system loudly clanks a circuit around the plant. It was converted from an old iron ore engineering structure to move large units on the farm. It pulls several crates at a time up from the river and into the plant where they are ‘rumbled’, washed and cleaned. This makes it easier for the oysters to feed. The system is operated manually to minimise stress on the animal, before being returned to the water.
These oysters are 18 months old. They are processed for market at two and a half years. They will have been through the rumble and wash process twice during maturation to help harden their shells and fatten the meat.
The fat content dictates its flavour while the food in the oyster’s stomach determines bitterness or earthiness. “Oysters taste like what they eat”, explains Ben, “because you eat the whole animal, including its stomach”.
The flavour is affected by rainfall, the type of algae in the water, and also by region. “NSW oysters grown in freshwater rivers have an earth taste due to mud and sediment, while South Australian oysters are always the saltiest because of the high salt content in the water.”
Given our group is made up of chefs and waiters, hearing Ben talk about the oyster’s flavour and texture was one of the most interesting parts of the afternoon. Lauren Spyrou from the Bistro Guillaume in Melbourne summed it up well: “As I sell oysters on a daily basis in my job, being here at the roots of it all means I’ll able to talk from experience and be more informed with my customers.”
Cameron’s is known not only for its excellent oysters – and we all agree when we get to sample them freshly shucked – but its innovation as a company.
Unlike most farms where oysters are exposed to high and low tides, Cameron’s oysters are submerged in deep water all the time. “Being under water 24 hours a day means they can feed and grow 24 hours a day,” says Ben. This equates to more oysters, more quickly.
It’s certainly an advantage of farming in the unspoiled Tasmanian waters where there is no nearby agricultural or industry run-off. Cameron’s can market their oysters as being completely natural. “Out here in the wild, there are no inputs and it’s 100 per cent completely organic. Nothing is added to the water; it’s literally whatever Mother Nature chucks in there”, says Ben.
This also means that in lean years, they lose a lot of oysters. “There’s nothing we can or would do about that. Our market is built on being 100 per cent fertiliser- and chemical-free”, Ben explains.
Cameron’s insists on quality over quantity. “We’re very, very, very low density oyster farmers”, says Ben. “Many farms would grow 2-3 million oyster per hectare, here we put that many over 60 hectares”. More intensive farming would mean a compromise on quality.
“That’s why Tasmania has such a great name for oysters”.