As much as it pains me to say it, coming as I do from a part of the UK known for its own oyster production, Bluff oysters are the best I have ever tasted. I’ve eaten oysters all over the world – from the back of a boat in Namibia to a spit and sawdust bar in New Orleans. When my mother’s Auckland cousin, on hearing I was heading south, told me that if I ate nothing else I should make sure I had tasted a Bluff oyster, I wasn’t going to refuse.
I’m very glad I took his advice. It was the smoothest oyster that had ever slipped down my throat, unadulterated save for a squeeze of fresh lemon, and it went down a treat.
The Foveaux Strait is perfect for oyster production
So what’s their secret? The deep, cold waters of the Foveaux Strait are perfect for oyster production as the growing process is slow, allowing them to develop into large and juicy specimens. They’ve been harvesting oysters down south for a hundred and fifty years, first operating out of Stewart Island before moving across to Bluff after the original beds were exhausted. In those days, the boats shoveled the oysters right off the beach, but demand was so high the process wasn’t sustainable.
Business boomed, leading to the introduction of quotas in 1963. These quotas had to be cut in successive years from 170000 sacks to 115000 sacks per season by 1970, still plenty enough to go around. The industry was well managed until, in the mid 1980s, disaster struck in the form of a parasitic protozoan known as Bonamia. Despite its friendly sounding name, Bonamia turned the oysters black and watery and so the oyster harvest ceased. Eventually, in 1994, the beds were reopened and quotas gradually allowed to rise once more.
Plan your visit around Bluff Oysters Festival
Today, the oyster season runs from March to around July or August. The oysters are at their best in May leading to the celebrations forming the Bluff Oyster and Food Festival. Popular with locals and visitors alike, there is live music as well as oyster-themed events. The start of the festival sees the “piping in the oyster” ceremony, followed by opening competitions, eating competitions and even oyster sack creativity competitions.
So what are you waiting for? Look out for the Bluff oysters and make a point of trying at least one. You can find them throughout New Zealand, and they may be sold under a different name – dredge oysters, flat oysters or mud oysters – but for an authentic foodie experience, drive right down to Bluff. Your stomach will be very glad you did.