Second-generation oyster farmer Jim Yiannaros has been shucking oysters since the age of eight. The 50-year-old, who manages Bateman's Bay Oysters, recently won the Narooma Oyster Festival shucking contest for the third consecutive year. Yiannaros wields his Dexter shucking knife like a pro and was the first to shoehorn 30 Saccostrea commercialis (Sydney Rock Oysters) from their gnarled shells to take out the title.
"As a young fella, it was expected I would help my family in the holidays by selling oysters. From the age of eight, my [twin] brother John and I worked on the family farm opening five dozen oysters at a time and packed them for wholesale," Yiannaros says.
When Yiannaros's father Kosta migrated from Greece to Australia in 1955 he got a job opening oysters at a seafood shop in Melbourne's St Kilda before moving to Sydney's Taren Point to work for the Phillips family, who were Australia's largest oyster producer at that time.
"Dad was fascinated with oyster culture. As a newcomer to the country, he remembers watching his workmates get a dozen fresh-shucked oysters on brown bread before the football and thinking that was a beautiful thing," Yiannaros says.
"In 1970, Dad bought his first oyster lease on the Clyde River. Dad started his own business, Bateman's Bay Oysters the same year and I've been working on the oyster lease for more than four decades now," he says.
While commercial oyster farming in Australia started in the Georges River where Kosta worked, a recent report on the social and economic value of aquaculture in coastal NSW, commissioned by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, also highlighted the role of indigenous heritage on the industry.
Both Sydney Rock Oysters and the Angasi oyster are native to the eastern coast of our continent, and were a major resource for indigenous people in coastal regions.
That legacy continues with AJN Oysters, operated by indigenous locals Nicola and Ross Manton at Jigamy Farm property, located on the picturesque shores of Pambula Lake in southeastern NSW.
Those indigenous links to the land are also honoured by Jim Doyle, of Doyle's Oysters, who works closely with his indigenous team led by local Hillary Stewart. "Hillary knows the river better than anyone. He sees things differently to me and listening and respecting what he has to say has made a huge difference to the husbandry and how we're doing it," says Doyle, whose Sydney Rock Oysters were declared the Champion Aquaculture Product of the Year and Champion Sydney Rock Oyster at the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show in 2017. When it comes to enjoying oysters at their best, Doyle agrees aficionados should learn to shuck. While the average person might shuck one oyster in one minute, oyster-shucking champ Yiannaros can shuck about four in 30 seconds. "I can shuck them faster than you can eat them," says Yiannaros.
While the key to Yiannaros's speed as an oyster shucker comes down to years of experience, he urges oyster lovers to master the art, as he says the best way to enjoy an oyster is to slurp it just-shucked on the spot. Following are his tips and tricks on how to shuck an oyster.
How to shuck an oyster
- If you're new to shucking, wrap a tea towel over one hand. Start with a clean oyster, because you don't want to push mud and grit into it when you prise it open.
- Use a timber chopping board, because it's not slippery. Place the tea towel over the top of the oyster, with the lid of the oyster facing up. If you're right-handed hold the knife in your right hand; if you're left handed put it in your left.
- Put the tea towel over the hinge part of the oyster. Push down at the base of the hinge, stick the blade in at about 5 ml and then by levering the knife, it should flick the lid up so you can cut the muscle.
- If the hinge is facing out, the muscle is situated on the left-hand side of the oyster. You need to cut this in order to loosen the lid. Cut the muscle off the base of the shell to separate the meat from the shell.
- For presentation, turn the oyster upside down so the meaty side is facing upwards.
- If you want to take out the next Narooma Oyster Festival shucking competition, you can learn to shuck by sticking the blade between the base and the lid and jiggling the blade until the lid detaches from the base. If you want to shuck an oyster properly, you must separate the oyster muscle from the shell and retain all your meat and a bit of the brine.
- Trawl YouTube for clips on how to shuck an oyster - such as this handy guide from the Sydney Fish Market:
Photographs by Carla Grossetti / Narooma Oyster Festival.