“WORLD champion. That's me!" exclaims Jim Wild, gesturing proudly at the sign when we meet on a sunny afternoon at his place in Greenwell Point.
Recalling the momentous 1984 feat just like it was yesterday, Wild became the world's fastest oyster shucker that year after opening 30 oysters in two minutes and 31 seconds at the Galway International Oyster Festival in Ireland.
Described in 2000 by the Sunday Times as one of the 12 greatest shows on Earth, the annual food festival plays host to two closely watched oyster opening championships — the Irish Oyster Opening Championship and the World Oyster Opening Championship.
Since its inception back in 1954, the international event has been attracting record participants and crowds from all over the world annually.
Malaysia was represented in 2017 by Zeeshan Ehsan and Mohd Fizly Norazlan when the duo emerged top two finalists in the first Malaysian Shucking Championship that year.
News of Wild's success made him an overnight household name in New South Wales. He was pleasantly taken aback in 2013 when many people pointed the producers of Masterchef Australia in his direction when they were looking for a master oyster shucker to appear in an episode alongside Australia’s fastest prawn sheller, Wendy Parson, and expert fish processor, Darryl “Macca” MacAdam.
“I was nearly 64 then and there were surely 20 or 30 people around the country who are faster than me. Somehow, the Masterchef people insisted on my participation and I obliged,” explains Wild before revealing that he shucked a dozen oysters in just over a minute during the show.
“Parson peeled 750 grams of green prawns in 50 seconds while MacAdam filleted five flathead, deboning and skinning both sides in under two minutes! It was an amazing experience. Everyone was so friendly and were a bit amazed by each of our abilities.”
Once we’re comfortably seated on the boardwalk overlooking the scenic estuary that feeds off the Crookhaven and Shoalhaven Rivers, Wild patiently peels back the years. A little closer to the horizon are tell-tale signs of the oyster farms that make this region world famous.
Growing up in Taren Point, a suburb in southern Sydney, Wild remembers vividly rushing to the beach after school one day to meet his friend, Thomas Emery who taught him to open and eat his first oyster. The collision of natural flavours and the subtle saltiness from residual seawater made a lasting impact on the 8-year-old. That moment onwards, Wild was quite sure that his destiny would forever be intertwined with the sessile mollusc.
By the time he was 14, Wild stopped going to school and started work at an oyster processing centre. Five years later, he moved to Greenwell Point to start a family. After pausing momentarily to wave at the occupants on the deck of a passing boat, Wild quips: “That was 1969 and the money was in tuna and not oysters. Arriving at the right time enabled me to save substantially to buy a house and provide a comfortable living for my family.”
Within three years, however, Wild succumbed to the urge to once again return to oysters. He went into oyster processing in the north-eastern New South Wales town of Tweed Heads, remaining there until 1979.
“I moved back to Greenwell Point that year after receiving news that the oyster industry there had taken a turn for the better,” adds Wild before admitting that he’s perfectly happy in his present location and has no intention of moving anymore.
Wild's fame as an expert oyster shucker began in 1982 when Channel Nine television crew stopped by at Greenwell Point during their search for potential tourist spots in the state. They watched in awe when Wild opened a dozen oysters in 53 seconds flat! After that, news spread like wildfire and Wild never looked back.
The arrival of a group of visitors lures him away briefly and gives me the opportunity to reflect upon this chance visit while on my way to the thriving dairy industry in nearby Nowra.
Initially attracted to the signs promoting fresh oysters that litter the sides of Princes Highway, I’d decided to take the side road that led me past green pastures and paddocks filled with cows and sacks of corn. Before long, the road ended at a dusty driveway littered with the bone dry shellfish ruins of the past lying amidst shackling buckets, faded machinery and creaky palettes.
Like all oyster famers in Greenwell Point, Wild must have had an experience of a lifetime seeing his beloved industry evolve over the decades. White hair, ocean coloured shirt with little fish prints, bright yellow gumboots and tough hands from years of shucking oysters have made the aquaculturist a living icon in this region.
KEEPING THINGS SIMPLE
His enthusiasm for fresh seafood overflows in every nook and cranny of the rustic shacks that make up his small thriving business.
The place might not be polished, but visitors don’t mind that a bit. If anything, this no-frills enterprise with its picture perfect views is evidence that Wild and his wife, Robyn Cecilia, concentrate all their energy on growing quality shellfish in the brackish water estuary and supplying their legions of customers with some of the finest oysters in the world.
“We get a lot of ad hoc walk ins from locals as well as busloads of tourists from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and China. Hundreds of buses come in when harvest season starts. Each carries about 40 people and that sums up to quite a lot of people visiting Greenwell Point,” declares Wild, returning with a large tray filled with freshly shucked oysters complete with Tabasco sauce, lemon wedges and pepper grinder.
The small, creamy Sydney rock oysters are best enjoyed natural with a touch of ground pepper and Wild recommends just a slight squeeze of lemon, saying that too much would drown the natural flavours. The bigger and slightly chewier Pacific oysters go well with a good dash of the spicy Tabasco sauce. After a few samplings, I realise that the oysters are naturally salty enough, thanks to the salt water that trickles in when opened fresh.
Half way into the feast, Wild begins to explain the life cycle of the oyster. To my delight, he singles out the Pacific variety which is my favourite. Known also as Japanese oyster or Miyagi oyster, this species is native to the Pacific coast of Asia. It was unintentionally introduced to this region in the 1950s, through ballast water and hulls of ocean going ships.
Aquaculture farmers at the time noticed that the Pacific oyster outgrew the endemic species, the Sydney rock oyster. Early studies revealed the former's easy adaptability, often attaching themselves on the rock oyster collection stick and effectively edging off the latter species.
Within a few short years, Pacific oysters became the main species in Australian farms. Its dominance stems from a superior growth rate three times faster than the rock oyster, a reliable and constant supply of spat production and an already established market overseas.
LIFE OF AN OYSTER
The Pacific oyster grows best in estuaries but can also be found in intertidal and subtidal zones. It’s tolerant to wide salinity and temperature ranges. Spawning occurs when there’s a sudden rise in temperature to 20 degrees C during the summer months.
The Pacific oyster is known for its high fecundity where females release up to 50 to 200 million eggs in a single spawning. Simultaneously, males release sperms into the vicinity with their normal exhalent stream of water.
Oyster larvae are planktotrophic and move through the water column in search of suitable settlement locations.
They’re known to spend up to several weeks at this pelagic phase, dispersed over great distances by water currents before they metamorphose and settle as small spat. Like all oysters, the Pacific oyster larva attaches itself permanently using cement secreted from a gland once a suitable habitat is identified.
Upon settlement, larva changes into a juvenile spat. Its growth rate is dependent on water temperature, salinity and food supply. Under optimum environmental conditions, the oyster reaches marketable size within 18 to 30 months. Out in the wild, Pacific oysters are known to live up to 30 years.
While tucking into a juicy Sydney rock oyster, a product of his own blood, sweat and tears, Wild admits that life as an aquaculturist is never smooth sailing. Throughout our conversation, he often equates it to riding the waves during a storm at sea.
Fortunately, Wild is resilient enough to withstand the occasional deluge from the rivers flowing into the estuary that upsets the fragile aquatic ecosystem, and sinister oyster disease outbreaks that threaten the growth of his highly prized babies that can take up to three years to mature.
The same, however, cannot be said about the rest of the oyster-growing community in the area.
“The water body here is one of the best places to grow oysters. When I first started out 38 years ago, there were about 35 oyster farmers. Business boomed in spite of all the challenges and people from all over the world came to eat our oysters. In that way, you can say we helped put Greenwell Point on the tourist map. Sadly, rising costs began eating into the profits and less than a third of us are left standing today,” adds Wild.
Another ingredient that plays a major part in Wild's staying power is the fact he’s a natural showman. Judging from the countless photos hanging on the walls, this man seems to have an infinite supply of garish Hawaiian shirts and every shucking session seems like a golden opportunity to put on a captivating performance.
Behind this promotional facade, however, lies a shrewd businessman. Wild has been around long enough to see rivals come and go. In order for his business to continue bringing in profits, he knows more is needed than just quick hands, an extrovert personality and tasty oysters.
As a commercial oyster farmer, Wild is always willing to go the extra mile. Through years of experience, he knows that discerning customers look for more than just the opportunity to eat local oysters. They look for a memorable experience and background information while watching oysters shucked in front of them. They simply adore Wild's fresh-is-best philosophy.
To ensure a steady supply of quality oysters, Wild joins forces with the other farmers to meticulously test the health of both the Crookhaven and Shoalhaven Rivers. Water quality parameter readings and oyster meat samples are sent to laboratories on a fixed schedule to comply with the industry's tight food safety standards.
CANARIES OF THE OCEAN
Oysters, explains Wild, are highly sensitive creatures. They are among the first to show signs of distress when things start to go wrong with the water.
He elaborates: “Be it pollution, disease or climate change, the oyster is like a canary in a coal mine. Proactive measures are taken immediately when tell-tale signs surface or else they’ll lead to many other serious ramifications.”
Gesturing towards a grey holding area at the back, Wild says that ever since an outbreak of disease on the nearby Georges River in 1978, oyster farmers in Australia have been required by law to set up purification tanks that serve to kill any harmful pathogens in the oyster before it goes on sale.
“Together with the stringent requirements of the Australian Food Authority, we ensure that all our products are as safe as they can ever be. I’ve been eating fresh oysters for decades and, at age 70, I’m still as strong as a bull!” claims Wild enthusiastically as I prepare to take my leave.
While retracing the route back to Princes Highway, I’m convinced that Jim Wild’s Oyster Service, and Greenwell Point as a whole, fully deserve to be much more than just a detour for those driving along New South Wales' southern coast. The man and place definitely make for an all-encompassing destination in any tourist map!
For freshly shucked oysters, visit Jim Wild’s Oyster Service at 170 Greens Rd, Greenwell Point New South Wales 2540, Australia. Phone: +61 2 4447 1498.