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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Swimming with tuna, the 1kg $100 oyster and Coffin Bay Oyster Farm, Eyre Peninsula

One kilo King Oyster at Coffin Bay, Eyre Peninsula

This, my friends, is the one kilogram King Oyster. This impressive beauty is the result of patience and tender loving care, taking 6-7 years to grow. Compare that with most bistro oysters, which are grown for about a year-and-a-half.

For someone who builds even her holidays around food, Eyre Peninsula is one destination that seamlessly combines good food with stunning scenery. Hiking trip? Forget it. Surfing? Not likely. But hey, give me fresh oysters straight from the sea and the thrill of swimming with yellow fin tuna and I will squeeze into a wetsuit and jump into cold waters and still be happier than a local Berkshire pig rolling in mud.

Port Lincoln, South Australia
Port Lincoln

It was my recent visit to Adelaide for Tasting Australia  that took me to Eyre Peninsula, where all media delegates are split into regional side trips. You'll find Eyre Peninsula at the edge of the Great Australian Bight, about a 7.5 hour drive from Adelaide (650km) or a 45 minute flight to Port Lincoln, the largest city in the region.

Angasi oysters at Eyre Peninsula
Angasi oysters

Local tourism authorities promote Eyre Peninsula as Australia's seafood frontier. It's not until you realise how much seafood comes out of this region that you realise why. The area is the home of mussels (Kinkawooka Shellfish and Boston Bay Mussels), oysters (Coffin Bay Oyster Farm), Spencer Gulf King Prawns, Southern Rock lobsters, abalone, Hiramasa Kingfish (Cleanseas), snapper, King George Whiting, Southern calamari and Southern Bluefin Tuna.

More than 60% of South Australia's seafood comes from the Eyre Peninsula. It also boasts the largest commercial fishing fleet in the Southern Hemisphere.

Angasi oysters at Eyre Peninsula
Angasi oysters

It was here that many of us tried Angasi oysters for the first time, native to southern Australia and finally experiencing a (farm-fuelled) resurgence after decades of overfishing. The Angasi shell is markedly different in appearance from Pacifics and Sydney rocks, a vision of delicacy with its smooth flat lid and elegant fan-shaped base.

They taste different too, milder in flavour with savoury, almost umami notes. It reminds me of eating steamed oysters Chinese-style, cooked with ginger, soy and shallots, firmer in texture, less brininess and a lingering savoury aftertaste. Angasi oysters are related to both the New Zealand bluff oyster and the European flat Belon oyster.

Australian Financial Review journalist, Rachel Lebihan - who was on the same trip - has written an interesting article about these Angasi oysters and the farmer behind them, here.

The $100 Oyster

Coffin Bay King Oyster
Introducing the King Oyster

Where the Angasi pays tribute to our local heritage, the King Oyster is nothing but a boxing heavy weight. We're all a little stunned when we first encounter this behemoth at a dinner one evening, dwarfing the other oysters on display.

Lester Marshall opening the one kilo Coffin Bay King Oyster
Lester Marshall from Coffin Bay Oyster Farm

The King Oysters are farmed by Lester Marshall from Coffin Bay Oyster Farm. They weigh about one kilo (including the shell) and measure about 18cm in length (about 1.5 times the length of an iPhone).

At the moment he only supplies them to the Port Lincoln Hotel, where they retail for $100 each. He does not supply them to Adelaide restaurants, preferring to keep them as an exclusive local offering.

Man v Oyster

So how does one attack a one kilo oyster? One eager volunteer was more than happy to step in!

Bottoms up!

Thumbs up! (He was chewing for quite a while!)

Emus on safari!

Local emu farms mean that often a drive can feel like you're on some kind of wild safari. Dirt roads sent up clouds of dust as we drove past a few wandering cows and a couple of sheep that had jumped the fence.

Berkshire Pig Farm

Free range pigs at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, Wangary
Free range pigs at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, Wangary

We eventually arrive at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, the kind of idyllic environment you expect all commercially-raised pigs should be entitled to. Eucalypts, paddocks and even a windmill in the background - it's picture postcard perfect, with added grunts and squeals.

Free range pigs at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, Wangary
Happy pigs

Antique dealers Warren and Linda Smith started rearing Berkshire pigs six years ago. Allowing the pigs to roam free range means they take twice as long to reach the same weight as commercial piggeries. This also means they eat twice as much feed in the interim.

Free range pigs at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, Wangary
Pigs at the drinking trough

The difference, of course, is a happy pig. Here we see pigs trotting cheerfully through mud, drinking at troughs, sunbaking on their sides or seeking respite in the shade.

Free range pigs at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, Wangary

There are 350 pigs spread across the Smith's 90 hectare farm, which includes four stud males and about 60 breeding females.

Free range pigs at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, Wangary
Mum and kids

A series of outdoor nursery pens allows new mothers to tend to their own litter of piglets. The young will stay with mum in the comfort of an outdoor shed for at least eight weeks before being weaned. The pigs are then moved into different outdoor pens based on weight - this is primarily to allow smaller pigs an even chance at getting food!

Two-day old piglet at Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm, Wangary
A two-day old Berkshire piglet

After taste-testing the bacon and pan-fried pork chops, I ended up buying several kilograms of bacon which I painstakingly lugged back to Adelaide, through the Barossa, back to Adelaide and then home to Sydney. It was worth it though! The bacon was life-changing - lusciously ribboned with creamy fat and incredibly smoky in flavour. It was the star of my Elvis sandwich (bacon, peanut butter, strawberry jam, maple syrup and banana on toast). Oh you know you want to try it. You can thank me later!

And the funniest fact of the day? The Smiths were both vegetarian for 15 years when they decided to start breeding pigs. Warren Smith is no longer a vegetarian. Linda still is.

Cleanseas Hiramasa Kingfish and
Kinkawooka Mussels

Cleanseas hiramasa kingfish farm Boston Bay

Out on the sea we come up close to the Hiramasa Kingfish farm run by Cleanseas at Boston Bay. It's quite a sight as we approach the huge nets set in the middle of nowhere.

Kingfish farm net
Kingfish farm net

Using aquaculture ensures consistency in size and availability for suppliers, Ian May from Cleanseas tell us. It also assures a restaurant that their dish will be reliable in taste and texture, from one customer to the next.

Kingfish feed
Kingfish feed

The fish are fed three times a day, a process that takes about 30-45 minutes each time. One person will stay out for 8-9 hours to take care of feeding. The feed is a commercial mix made of 40% fish and 60% vitamins and minerals.

Feeding the kingfish
Feeding the Hiramasa Kingfish

The nets are changed every ten days, vital to prevent the growth of parasites which lay eggs in the nets. The farm is also relocated periodically, with seabed samples regularly taken and tested for impact analysis.

Farmed kingfish in Boston Bay
Hiramasa kingfish at fingerling stage

The Hiramasa kingfish are farmed for about 2.5-3 years and finally harvested at a weight of around three kilos. The farm we were looking at had about 60,000 kingfish at fingerling stage.

Andrew Puglisi from Kinkawooka Mussels
Andrew Puglisi from Kinkawooka Mussels

Next stop is Kinkawooka Mussels, a father and son operation that began in 2000. Their mussels are grown using the New Zealand longline system where spats (seeds) are resettled onto nursery lines and then de-clumped and transferred onto thicker fibrous ropes.

In its first year, Kinkawooka produced 50 tonnes of mussels. In 2012 they harvested 750 tonnes.

Kinkawooka pioneered a process of partial vacuum-sealed bags for mussels, allowing them to be cleaned, debearded and packed live. The bags enable a shelf-life of ten days for the mussels (usually they only stay alive for seven days).

And the fun fact for the day here is white mussels are male, and orange mussels are female.

Look Mum, I'm Swimming with Tuna!

Yellow fin tuna at Boston Bay
Yellow fin tuna at Boston Bay

Would you swim with tuna? Who wouldn't? We chugged our way with Adventure Bay Charters to a yellow fin tuna farm where we were given the choice of watching, feeding and/or swimming with tuna.

Yellow fin tuna
Why hello Mr Tuna

Squeezing into a wetsuit is never an easy task, but all that was forgotten when we walked out onto the floating pontoon where 15 yellow fin tuna were swimming carefree in the water.

Tongs were provided to feed the tuna pilchards and it was soon apparent why - the tuna approach with blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed, often turning sharply on their sides before surging out of the water to snatch the fish away from you.
Swimming with tuna
Just another day, swimming with tuna

Getting into the water was easy, descending via a ladder from the platform. The water was cold but not stupefyingly so, and snorkels gave us a clear underwater view.

What was it like? Incredible. Putting your head below water and watching giant tuna swim past was both calming and terrifying. Tuna aren't the most elegant shape - bulky in size and squat across the middle - but their grace and speed is mesmerising, like missiles zooming through the water, able to change direction at a moment's notice.

Adding to the drama was the plop of pilchards being hurled near our floating selves by our enthusiastic tour guide.  One minute you see a tuna swimming 6 feet away and in the next second it's heading straight toward you and the pilchard floating 2 feet from your face.

We experienced this tour as guests, but their website info indicates that the two-hour tour normally costs $95, including feeding, swim and some tuna sashimi afterwards (it was delicious). Wetsuit hire is extra. Contact Adventure Bay Charters direct for latest prices/details/info.

Coffin Bay Oyster Farm

Coffin Bay oyster beds
Coffin Bay oyster beds

And finally, Coffin Bay Oyster Farm. The weather, we'd been told, had been horrendous the week before, but the sun turned it on the entire time we were there. Blue skies and fluffy clouds made the scenery even more drop dead gorgeous, but I suspect that even in winter, the area remains an exquisite sight to behold.

Crystal clear waters of Boston Bay
Crystal clear waters of Boston Bay

Wake of waves
Waves are relaxing

Rack and rail oyster farming at Coffin Bay, South Australia
Rack and rail oyster farming

We pull up to Coffin Bay Oyster Farm and are given a crash course in oyster farming, a painstaking process that more then justifies the cost behind an oyster. Here they use the rack and rail method to grow oysters, a low maintenance method, but one that requires the racks to be moved depending on the height of the tides. The oysters grow faster in deep water (when the basket is submerged) but then the shell becomes too thin making transport difficult.

90% of the work involved with oyster farming is grading. Every 4-6 weeks, every basket is taken back to shore and the oysters are sorted into similar sizes and put back into new baskets. If different sized oysters are placed in the same basket, only the larger oysters will get to feed. It takes about 18 months for an oyster to reach maturity, meaning each oyster is graded about fifteen times in its lifetime. The average failure rate is 30%.

The King Oyster, which takes 6-7 years to grow, will end up growing barnacles that require a tomahawk to remove. It takes about 20 minutes to clean the barnacles from each King Oyster. In its lifetime, a King Oyster will be handled about thirty times.

Live oysters growing inside the oyster basket
Live oysters growing inside the oyster basket

Ensuring there is sufficient space is each basket is integral, as allowing the oysters room to roll around with the movement of the tide gives a smoother shape and less chance of barnacles attaching themselves. It's a complex and detailed operation that makes me appreciate oysters even more.

And did you know that oysters are taught to exercise? Oysters open in the water to feed - about eight litres of water is pumped through every hour by the oyster frill. When the oyster is out of the water, it uses its muscle to shut itself closed. The muscle is usually strong enough to hold itself closed for three days.

The oyster farmers encourage the muscle the grow stronger - or exercise - by making sure tidal depths leave the oysters out of water three times a day. This series of 'reps' means the oyster will be able to hold itself shut for up to fourteen days - good news for the oyster farm and the restaurant/customer.

Coffin Bay oyster
Freshly shucked oyster straight from Coffin Bay oyster beds

We finish with a feast of oysters plucked straight from the beds and shucked on the boat. The brine is the best part of course, followed by the salty sweet creaminess of the oyster, so fresh it's almost quivering in its pristine shell.

Still blue water tranquility of Eyre Peninsula

We cruise our way back to shore, soaking up the views and the endless expanse of blue.

Clear water of Eyre Peninsular
Water so clear you can see straight to the bottom

The water is crystal clear, allowing us to spot jellyfish, calamari and starfish. And then, as if by engineered design...

Wild dolphin in Boston Bay
It's Flipper!

... a playful dolphin swims up alongside our boat. We're like a chorus of excited school kids but can you blame us?

Wild dolphin in Boston Bay

Grab Your Fork visited Eyre Peninsula as a guest of the South Australia Tourism Commission.

Minniribbie Berkshire Pig Farm
40 Snapper Hill Road, Wangary, South Australia
Tel: +61 (08) 8685 4477

Adventure Bay Charters

(swim with tuna, sealions and great whites)
2 Jubilee Drive, Port Lincoln, South Australia
Tel: +61 (08) 8682 2979

Coffin Bay Explorer
(visit Coffin Bay oyster farm)
Tel: +61 (0)428 880 621

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Tasting Australia 2012 - Inside a Bee Hive + Adelaide Showground Farmers Market
Tasting Australia 2012 - Press Food & Wine and Adelaide Dessert Bars

Tasting Australia 2010 - Adelaide Central Market
Tasting Australia 2010 - Enoteca Restaurant with Antonio Carluccio
Tasting Australia 2010 - Lunch with Maggie Beer
Tasting Australia 2010 - Taldy-Kurgan Russian piroshki at Adelaide Central Market
Tasting Australia 2010 - The Manse Restaurant with Stephanie Alexander
20 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 6/12/2012 03:10:00 am


  • At 6/12/2012 7:51 am, Anonymous Billy@ a table for two said…

    I didn't believe someone would take the 1kg challenge until you showed me the photo! Hahaha too funny! Swimming with tuna sounds amazing! Would love to try one day.

  • At 6/12/2012 8:47 am, Anonymous SarahKate (Mi Casa-Su Casa) said…

    Lovely pictures of a lovely part of the world. Not sure I'd go in for the 1KG oyster, but it looks like that guy had fun!

  • At 6/12/2012 12:15 pm, Anonymous Jenny said…

    The water looks so blue! And I'm so jealous you got to swim with tuna. I think I'd be a little scared though!

  • At 6/12/2012 2:29 pm, Anonymous Eha said…

    What a fantastic learning experience of a part of Australia my feet have yet to tread! Enjoyed every pic!!

  • At 6/12/2012 9:37 pm, Anonymous The Food Sage said…

    A seafood lover's paradise, indeed. An excellent write-up of the trip, Helen. And lovely photographs, too. You certainly captured the man v. oyster moment. It was hilarious - Michael will love those photos! Thanks for the kind link to the AFR piece on angasi oysters. There's simply no going back after eating oysters fresh from the sea, wouldn't you agree? If only we could be spoilt like that more often.

  • At 6/12/2012 9:52 pm, Anonymous Ipomen Scarlet said…

    Why couldn't they have given the gentleman with the 1kg oyster a knife and fork?

    He looked a bit under the pump there, what with a 1kg oyster shoved into his mouth.

  • At 6/12/2012 10:08 pm, Anonymous Melissa said…

    Such cute little pigs! I would love to try an angassi oyster one day.

  • At 6/12/2012 10:25 pm, Anonymous alonsss said…

    I had no idea that so much seafood came from the Eyre Peninsular but now I really want to go and visit. I want to eat those oysters!

  • At 6/12/2012 11:33 pm, Anonymous MrsPigflyin said…

    Thank you for taking me to Eyre Peninsula through these beautiful photos and writing, it is definitely on my to-go list. FYI, I didn't get to try any bacon, someone finished all too quickly.

  • At 6/13/2012 3:48 am, Blogger BeyondBourkeStreet said…

    Sounds like an amazing trip! I would totally take and (complete!) the 1kg oyster challenge xD

  • At 6/13/2012 6:54 am, Blogger Anna @ The Shady Pine said…

    That is one massive oyster!! Oysters have always been such a treat....a really interesting post Helen!

  • At 6/13/2012 3:01 pm, Blogger sugarpuffi said…

    OH MY GOD!! 1kg oyster! thats a meal on its own! great trip Helen

  • At 6/14/2012 9:02 am, Anonymous gaby @ lateraleating said…

    Interesting oyster trivia. Next time I eat oysters I'll picture them pumping iron :)

  • At 6/14/2012 1:30 pm, Anonymous Anna @ The Littlest Anchovy said…

    You went on my dream trip! I loved reading this post Helen - from the oysters to the piggies! But when you described that bacon...wow, I think I have to go to lunch now!

  • At 6/16/2012 10:09 pm, Anonymous Chompchomp said…

    Awesome trip! I wonder what those king oysters tasted like?

  • At 6/16/2012 10:52 pm, Anonymous Dizzy said…

    What an incredible trip! The photo of the tuna in the water took my breath away.

  • At 6/17/2012 8:19 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Wow I cannot get over the size of that oyster - just incredible. Never been to the Eyre Peninsula but it looks good.

  • At 6/18/2012 12:35 am, Anonymous D said…

    oh my gosh the oyster farms are so beautiful. I love oysters and I'm so jealous you saw a dolphin. How exciting!

  • At 6/19/2012 5:52 am, Blogger Bubbie said…

    Hi Helen! Beautiful photos! May I ask what camera and lenses it is u use?


  • At 6/19/2012 11:30 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Mrs Pigflyin - No bacon!? Outrageous!

    Hi Gaby - haha me too!

    Hi Anna - Thanks for your kind words, and yes, the bacon was pretty tasty. Best Elvis sandwich ever!

    Hi Bubble - Thank you. I used a Nikon D90 and a 35mm f2 lens.


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