Bluff oyster Tiostrea chilensis, is found throughout New Zealand, most commonly in the south and famously in Foveaux Strait, between Bluff and Stewart Island. The same species is also found in Chile.
These egg-shaped medallions live in gravelly sand as opposed to clinging to rocks, ropes or structures like the Sydney rock oyster or the Pacific oyster. Another point of difference is that Bluff – more recently known as Dredge – oysters live well out of the intertidal zone, at a depth of 25 to 50m and we collect them by clawing them out of the seabed. This wasn’t always the case. When oystering began in the area in the 1860’s, they were collected on sand bars at low tide. After about 15 years the beds had been over-harvested to the point of exhaustion. A couple of years later new beds were found in deeper water and commercial harvesting continued. Skipping forward to 1987, the catastrophic Bonamia parasite decimated populations and ceased the commercial harvest until 1994. The disease popped up again in the 2002 season, taking out most of the harvest. It continues to take around 9% of the population annually. Their commercial sale is restricted to a season, beginning in March, and running to about July or August, depending on when the quota is met. This year the quota is (its complicated) around 15million oysters.
Dredging technology doesnt seem to have evolved much over the decades. While looking into the subject I found this wee gem of a historic video about Southland in the 1950’s which shows much the same technology in use (~8mins in) as this one does (with great dredge-eye-view) from our National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) 50 years on..
So.. Bluff oysters are truly wild, and grow up in pristine conditions but are combatting a disease that has dug its heels in and are harvested in a way that stirs up sediment, and dislodges whatever else is down there. Their commercial harvest seems at best quaint, but more realistically archaic and unsustainable. They’re scarce, and they’re expensive, and… they’re delicious! They are really beefy in composition, have a robust creamy flavour, and in comparison to Pacific oysters they really benefit from a squeeze of lemon.
I certainly don’t intend to permanently add Bluffies to my diet, but Im glad I know a bit more about them. And.. since we are eating them, why not push the boat RIGHT OUT, and get our hands dirty with some empirical data vis-à-vis Carpetbagger steaks!
Lock me up! Im a food-criminal!
What can I say? .. I reckon the carpetbagger was not greater than the sum of its parts. I mean.. it was grand.. and the novelty factor was off the charts, but it simply tasted like a steak, with an oyster inside it. I was surprised how the oyster became firm and matched the texture of the steak as it was heated, bulking it out, rather than providing a gooey centre like I had somehow imagined. I also failed to take into account the extra cooking time the extra bulk would require. Alas, we won’t be trying this one again.. I’ll take my next Bluff oyster neat, with just a splash of lemon juice, thanks.