The Big Ingredient: oysters

Regarded as 'the food of the people' Australians will serve oysters at weddings, offfice parties and even funerals. Jill Dupleix reflects on her nation's favourite
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The rock oyster is Australia's soul food. There are oysters on the Christmas table, at wedding receptions, at stag parties and at restaurant celebrations of big business deals. At the wake of a dear friend of mine, a proud Australian of Celtic origin, there were platters upon platters of "Sydney rocks" served with lemons and buttered triangles of brown bread.

The rock oyster is Australia's soul food. There are oysters on the Christmas table, at wedding receptions, at stag parties and at restaurant celebrations of big business deals. At the wake of a dear friend of mine, a proud Australian of Celtic origin, there were platters upon platters of "Sydney rocks" served with lemons and buttered triangles of brown bread.

In fact, shell deposits of rock oysters in middens left by nomadic Australian aboriginals have been carbon-dated to 6000 BC. The last few generations of Australians grew up believing oysters were the food of the people, cheap and accessible to all. My mother recalls going to Melbourne's oyster bars in the 1950s, and feasting on oyster soup, a dozen oysters and buttered brown bread for a couple of shillings.

Australia does not seem perturbed by the fact that it has no real national cuisine, and few unique native ingredients. There is an occasional debate over what might be our national dish (seared kangaroo with beetroot, the wattle-seed and bunya nut pavlova) but talk soon dies away as another glass of Tasmania's Springvale Pinot Noir is poured and the Western Australian Kervella organic goat cheese is broached.

We're all too busy eating the fabulous food around us to worry too much about the political, historic and cultural significance of it. But if there is one thing that stands for everything that is good about Australian food, it is the Sydney rock oyster. The product of clean, blue waters, it holds within its granite shell the central tenets of our philosophy on food: that it must be fresh, unadulterated and big on flavour.

What's the big deal, you ask? We have oysters here, too. You do, and great ones. But those who think the Irish, the Colchester, the French Belon or fine de claire are the only oysters in the world, have new pleasures in store should they ever land in Australia.

Of the three most common oysters in Australia, the rich, mouth-filling, fatty, creamy Sydney Rock ( Saccostrea commercialis) is the most loved. This estuarine rock oyster is small and thick-shelled, and is cultivated along the eastern seaboard from Victoria to Queensland. The European equivalent would be the fine de clair, although the methods of production differ, the French oyster being "refined" in clays, or clairs, and fed by freshwater and saltwater.

The second most common is the briny, deep-shelled, fast-growing Pacific ( Crassostrea gigas) introduced from Japan in the 1940s, now cultivated mainly in the deeper, cooler waters around Tasmania and South Australia. The closest equivalent here would be the Irish rock oyster.

The third is the native flat oyster ( Ostrea angasi), with its big, minerally, mouth-filling flavour. Local equivalents are the mighty English natives from Colchester, Halford and the like, and the "belon" or "armoricaine" of France.

The oyster is a great source of inspiration to Australia's top chefs, who have at their disposal an entire continent of fresh sub-tropical and tropical produce, a knowledge of both Mediterranean and south-east Asian techniques, and an openness to new ideas. The result is a series of simple, intelligent and intuitive dishes: read them and weep.

At Sydney's iconic Rockpool in the historic Rocks district, pony-tailed chef Neil Perry serves briny, iodine-flavoured Pacific oysters in soy, Japanese mirin and rice wine vinegar, and tea-smoked oysters with a green mango salad. David Thompson of Sydney's Sailor's Thai (and London's Nahm restaurant) does both an oyster and banana blossom salad and a cured pork and oyster salad; while the cocktail crowd beat a path to the door of Longrain for Martin Boetz's mouth-filling oysters in coconut cream with trout roe, basil and lime.

Peter Kuruvita, whose Sydney harbourside restaurant Flying Fish is lined with tanks of live shellfish, serves Pacific oysters oven-roasted with crisp prosciutto and a warm tomato salsa. Japanese/French-inspired Tetsuya Wakuda keeps things simple with a rice wine vinaigrette and wasabi, while further up the east coast, Steve Snow of Byron Bay's Fins steams local oysters with kaffir lime leaf, chilli and ginger. But if you ask any ridgy-didge Australian the best way to eat an oyster it would be straight from the shell and down the throat, sea-salty juices and all, just as it was 8,000 years ago.

Jill Dupleix's Good Cooking: The New Essentials is published by Quadrille, £18.99. Available 6 May

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