“The Australian oyster market, for a long time, has really been dominated by two different species,” say Pez Collier, co-owner of Melbourne’s Pearl Diver. “[There’s] the Pacific oyster that was introduced from Japan, which is one of the most grown shellfish in the world, and the native rock oyster, being grown from Victoria and New South Wales into Queensland.”
As a specialist oyster bar and bistro, Pearl Diver serves oysters beyond the big two. There’s the angasi and tropical blacklip rock oyster – both native species with their own long culinary histories. Recently though, another type of shellfish has arrived on the menu to offer something different for oyster lovers: the Leeuwin Coast Akoya.
Shellfish farming with a twist
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Until recently, the Akoya has flown low on the culinary radar – farmed mainly for pearls than for food. Where it’s appeared on menus, Akoya meat has often been a by-product of the pearling industry. Now, as consumers crave choice, the Akoya is farmed specifically for culinary purposes.
A five-hour drive south of Perth, on the southernmost coastline of Western Australia, is the small city of Albany. It’s here where the coastal waters support an aquaculture environment well-suited to the Akoya. “You’ve got this current that’s flowing down the West Australian coast called the Leeuwin Current,” says Collier. “The Leeuwin Current is a warm current and, around Albany, that mixes with the water from the Southern Ocean. That warm water coming through keeps the water warmer in winter and cooler in summer so you have a much more consistent temperature zone in those regions.”
In these waters, Leeuwin Coast grows the Akoya with a longline system. Akoyas grow together in colonies on long ropes stretching out down into the open ocean. Creating something akin to an artificial reef, for fish, it’s a setup that borrows more from mussel farming than traditional oyster farming.
“With rock oysters and Pacific oysters, you generally find them in estuary environments or intertidal zones, where the oyster is going in and out of the water,” says Collier. “The longline system keeps [Akoya oysters] submerged all the time so they don’t actually go in and out of the water.”
From the ocean to the menu
In the kitchen, the Akoya is notably different from its popular cousins. It’s a little more robust and meaty, sometimes compared to abalone or scallop meat. Ocean farming means the Akoya has a different flavour profile too.
“With [Pacific and rock] oysters you tend to get an umami, vegetal character, which you don’t get in the Akoya,” says Collier. “Because [Akoya] is more suited to an oceanic environment, especially around that area where you’ve got consistent temperature and that interesting mixing of the waters, you tend to get a much cleaner, salty crispness on them.”
The combination of subtle flavour and meaty texture means the Akoya lends itself to preparations that don’t always suit other seafood products. “The Akoya can really sing and hold up to some more interesting preparations in terms of smoking, poaching them, frying them, marinating them,” says Collier. “We did them with a really light poach and then marinated them in an escabeche style. I’ve seen places do some really lovely Asian-influenced dishes – lots of [makrut] lime, lemongrass, soy. When they have that little bit of curing or cooking, they can get a little bit more buttery, a little bit creamier and a little bit more robust.”
A fresh future
For enthusiasts like Collier, including the Akoya is about catering to a growing curiosity, and that means serving more than the two classic oyster species. The angasi, or flat oyster, has a gamey taste whereas the blacklip rock oyster, found in more tropical waters, is sweeter than others. The Akoya’s variety of flavours, cooking methods and underrated awareness makes them a fresh and new shellfish to explore.
“For us, it’s about being able to open the conversation and offer something that is unique and new,” Collier says. “The market has been so dominated by the rock and Pacific oysters for so long that I think it’s exciting that there are these new oysters. It’s still a small percentage of the market but it’s exciting.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Leeuwin Coast.