The Oyster is their world - Outback Magazine Oct/Nov 2013

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Brothers John and Ben Ralston grew up on the Clyde River and in 2002 took the reins of their family's oyster farm.
IN SOFT PRE-DAWN LIGHT on slate water, brothers Ben and John Ralston punt along the Clyde River at Batemans Bay on the NSW south coast. With four other siblings, the boys grew up on this river with their parents, Graham and Myee.
The Clyde is in their blood. They know its tides, every rock and crevice, and its value. Since they were small boys they have played, fished, swum and snorkelled here and took the reins of the family oyster farming business from Graham in 2002.
Their great, great-grandfather, Lionel Ralston, began oyster farming in the late 1870s at Wallace Lake, Foster. Then his son, Glen, came to the Clyde in the 1890s when leases began. “Our grandfather was born here, but later moved to Sydney to be near schooling for Dad,” Ben says. “They’d travel down to the Bay on weekends. Pa was a metal sheet worker in Sydney during the week and oyster farmer on weekends. In the 1970s, and after time in Vietnam, Dad moved back to the Bay and full-time oyster farming. He was the first to move from traditional farming to more modern methods.”
Flanked by gently sloping land, dense with eucalypt forest, swamp oak, saltmarsh and mangroves and alive with water birds, the Clyde is one of Australia’s most pristine river systems and shell deposits found in Aboriginal middens dating back to 6000BC, show that oysters have long been a staple part of the diet here. The river flows for more than 120 kilometres through mountain ranges, national park and state forest, widening into a broad estuary
before reaching the Pacific Ocean. With an absence of polluting industries in the catchment, the water quality is pure and ideal for growing world-class oysters suitable for top restaurants.
Seeing themselves as stewards of the river, the 22 Clyde River oyster growers engage with all river users, other organisations and the community to ensure the river’s high conservation value remains and use an environmental management system as a guide to safeguard the water quality. Collectively, they produce more than 900,000 dozen oysters each year.
Most growers are in the process of replacing the traditional stick method of cultivation with PVC baskets and trays. “It can cost up to $100,000 per hectare to convert, so it can take a while,” Ben explains. “We’ve replaced tens of thousands of sticks over the past 10 years – it’s not only better for the environment but enables us to concentrate on our signature brands, giving us time to produce a world-class oyster.”
To grow best quality wild, baby Sydney rock oysters, called spat, Ben, 27, and John, 33, collect them from their lease at Port Macquarie. Each year they transfer more than three million fingernail-sized spat to the Clyde River ? the ideal habitat for growing and finishing oysters for flavour. “On arrival we place the baby oysters in the nursery in round baskets,” Ben says. “Later, we transfer them to trays for finishing. Growing an oyster takes around three years.”
With more than 130 years of oyster farming heritage and improved farming techniques, the Ralston Bros have perfected the shape, taste and texture of their oysters. “When the tide drops, the water falls through the baskets, giving us the shape we look for – that’s how we came up with the names for our two signature varieties, Waterfall and Petit Waterfall,” Ben adds. “The Waterfall has a fresh, light salt, crisp texture, while Petit Waterfall is a creamier, plumper, sweeter oyster. We prefer to eat the Petit ?
bigger doesn’t always mean better. Our goal is to see our name on menus in more top restaurants around the country and with recent approval to export oysters, before long, in great restaurants globally.”
From the trays Ben and John are hauling in this morning, some of the oysters will be harvested, others will return to the river for further growth. As Ben slickly shucks a Waterfall, he exposes its clean, pearly interior with a black lip and little pool in which the creamy, plump oyster is nestling in its natural juices.
“We’ve created our two unique varieties by using the tide to produce a uniform, cupped shape to hold a higher meat volume. We place the baskets at strategic levels to allow the tide to move the oysters up and around. When they’re ready we transfer them to tidal system trays and later hand-select for shape and size before finishing them in a certain manner to create a unique flavour – but our exact method is a family secret,” he adds. “While our oysters have a shelf life of 10 days, it only takes a few hours to harvest, clean and box them before delivering to market within 24 hours.”
Ben says in other places throughout the world it’s common to shuck your own oysters. “We want to educate Australians to do the same,” he says. “We visit restaurants to show chefs and staff how to shuck and we reinforce the importance of keeping oysters in their natural juices. When you buy directly from the farm, the only way to experience the most amazing flavour is to shuck the oysters yourself. They are best eaten in their natural juices and enjoyed with a crisp glass of wine or a cold beer.”