Coffin Bay Calling
Coffin Bay may have first come to prominence as the name beside oysters on a restaurant menu, but – as Lyndey Milan discovers – it has so, so much more to offer the travelling pescatarian.
At the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia is Coffin Bay, the name shared by a pristine National Park and its nearby town some 46 kilometres from Port Lincoln. Think remote beaches, secluded coves and a coastal landscape of windswept cliffs, pillowy sandy dunes, pounding surf and sheltered bays boarded by bushland.
Depending on the season and the weather, a visit to the commercial wharf in the town centre may see fishermen unloading everything from crayfish to pilchards, ocean jackets, octopus, sea urchin, scallops, sand crabs, abalone, King George whiting and garfish – an absolute aquatic bounty.
Aquaculture is also important in the area, predominantly with Pacific and some native Angasi oysters, but also more recently with marron. Coffin Bay Marron is run by Ben Underdown, who bought the property four years ago. He, his fiancée Astyn, and their family run it as a burgeoning weekend hobby business. The marron thrive in the clean waters of man-made channels, with groundwater filtered through limestone – something unique to this operation – keeping the meat rather delicate and fresh and free from any muddiness. They are also purged for at least two days before harvest. Grains and hay are grown on the property to feed the marron and yabbies, ensuring no pesticides are fed to the crustaceans or can enter the water.
A nice haul of Coffin Bay vongole (Image credit: Gavin Myers).
Marron is a Coffin Bay specialty (Image credit: South Australian Tourism).
Marron only breed once a year and range in size from 170g to over 250g, including the unusual blue marron (same species but a genetic anomaly). They also farm yabbies over 40g each. Ben is ever finding new ways of doing things as he strives to carefully expand production: he and Astyn are building a house on-site with an off-grid solar system and an aboveground dam for some trials, hoping this will give them more time to do what’s required. “The last two cold, wet summers slowed things down, so all should be in place for the next season from December to May.”
Ben and Astyn sometimes host groups on the farm with Australian Coastal Safaris with an afternoon charter showcasing a platter of local seafoods – a great way to try the seasonal diversity on offer when visiting the area. They’ve also caught the attention of Australia’s top chefs such as Jake Kellie from hot Adelaide restaurant Arkhé, Sydney seafood supremo Josh Niland, as well as local businesses 1802 and Oyster HQ in Coffin Bay – quite the achievement for four years’ work.
South Australia enjoys some of the world's most beautiful beaches (Image credit: South Australian Tourism).
Vongole as they naturally appear on the seabed (Image credit: Gavin Myers).
Vongole in Coffin Bay
South Australia also commercially harvests two types of vongole: grey and white. White vongole are larger, predominantly coming from the Coffin Bay harvest area from late August to late April. Grey vongole on the other hand come from “West Coast” regions, being Streaky Bay, Venus Bay, and Smoky Bay from May to July. Both are sustainably managed through a quota system, in place since early 2000s, to avoid over-fishing, remaining stable ever since allowing 50 tonnes per year out of Coffin Bay and 15 tonnes from West Coast.
Multiple license holders hand rake with a net on the back, not unlike a garden rake. Raking by hand ensures impact on the sandy bottom is kept to an absolute minimum. Vongole are raked, washed and graded all at sea within a few hours, before going to the Myers Seafood factory 30 minutes away. There, stock is weighed and legally documented for Fisheries Management to deduct from the fishers’ catch records for the year. The live vongole are then simply weighed to each pack size, chilled, and vacuum packed: there’s no need for purging.
Vongole is sold in Australia through a wholesale distribution network supplying retail and food service. Approximately fifty percent is consumed in NSW and South Australia, followed then by Victoria, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more enthusiastic about or committed to the industry than Gavin Myers, owner of the Myers Seafood brand and its logistics-oriented parent company, Southern Ocean Express.
Freshly shucked Coffin Bay oyster.
Eating Coffin Bay oysters straight from the water.
“There is no legally binding arrangement between the fisher/quota holder, and Myers Seafood who is the manager, processor and seller of 90% plus of the stock,” says Gavin. “It is built on longstanding and trusting relationships.”
They also schedule the fishers’ raking efforts throughout the season, raking to order to ensure the stock is harvested from the water to suit market demand. This reduces the risk of f looding the market and seeing stock go to waste. It also builds trust in the product and consistency of supply.
Through Australian Coastal Safaris, Myers Seafood offers the exclusive opportunity to experience local seafood at its freshest, including at the factory location. Guests are treated to an intimate (up to 10 people) six-course tasting, with an accompanying industry discussion about the vongole and the seafood industry as a whole.
A range of activities are on offer for the adventurous seafood lover, but for a total, active experience, Australian Coastal Safaris’ “Hunt and Gather” tour sees two to 10 guests gathering cockles, diving for abalone, enjoying the freshest seafood lunch and fishing one can imagine.
All in a day's work at Coffin Bay Oyster HQ.
Oysters are best served fresh in Coffin Bay (Image credit: South Australian Tourism).
The world is your oyster at Coffin Bay
Oyster Farm HQ enjoys some sensational views of Coffin Bay, best enjoyed by one of the regular tours created by oyster farmers Kim Thomas and Ben Catterall – also of local restaurant, Oyster HQ – to satisfy the demand from customers wishing to learn how oysters grow. From the outset, they wanted to create something unique, which indeed they have – the oyster farm, which you can visit, is one of only a very few in the world accessible by land, and is the oldest historic lease for Coffin Bay that is still a working commercial oyster farm.
Other tours may have started since, but Kim and Ben’s are immersive experiences, the only one in the world where guests wade through water to an oyster farm, before continuing the tour aboard one of the oyster farm’s licensed floating platforms. “It’s a bit of a ‘day in the life of an Oyster Farmer,’” says Kim. “Although very light-hearted, tour participants walk away with some knowledge about how oysters are farmed, they have a hands-on shucking lesson and learn a bit more about the oyster industry as a whole.”
It’s the prisitine environment they grow in, and the way they are handled from boat to shore to kitchen that makes these products simply world class...
Tony Carroll, chef at Fishbank in Adelaide, is a huge fan of Coffin Bay seafood. Pacific Oysters are featured, and lots of family-run businesses are “doing amazing things with these little gems,” says Tony. He also uses Gazander Oysters, as well as the Myer vongole, which he says “are just as good – if not better – than the popular Goolwa Pipi: they have a larger meat-to-shell ratio and are a little bit sweeter.”
However, he is ever aware that “seafood is a very seasonal commodity, controlled by Mother Nature or the Australian Fisheries Department.” Presently, he’s getting some amazing Nannygai from the region – “by far the best version of this species I have ever seen” – along with sardines, and fresh calamari so superbly handled he serves it raw, ceviche-style, with grilled tentacles and wings. For now, Tony’s excited by his first consignment of sea urchins and razor fish. “It’s the pristine environment they grow in, and the way they are handled from boat to shore to kitchen that makes these products simply world class and a pleasure to work with.”
After a visit to Coffin Bay, such excitement will seem perfectly understandable to any seafood lover.