An oyster is an oyster is an oyster. Unless, of course, it’s a Bluff oyster: the purported best of the bivalves, found in the tiny town of Bluff, New Zealand.
Bluff oysters are served on their own, with lemon or—at a push—with Tabasco. That’s if you can get them at all, of course. Quotas are low, the season goes from just March to August, and if you’re not in their native New Zealand, you may as well forget it. National demand is feverish, sometimes requiring helicopter couriers, and only 10 million are available each year. The oysters are vulnerable to parasites, too: An outbreak in the 1990s decimated populations of the mollusk.
True Bluff oysters come from the ice-cold Foveaux Strait. Navigating those waters, which run between Bluff and Stewart Island, can be perilous: Deaths are uncommon but not unheard of. Attempts to farm Bluff oysters elsewhere seemed successful—until a similar strain of the toxic parasite closed multiple commercial farms in June 2017.
For the people of Bluff, these oysters are almost a religion. Descended from whalers, traders, and missionaries, they’re stalwarts who put up with more than 200 days of rain a year. They speak with uncommon Southland accents that feature a strong Scottish burr, and only around 2,000 of them live in town. Bluff itself has a main street with a collection of surprisingly well-preserved Art Deco buildings—hotels, a souvenir shop, a single grocery store. Housing is cheap, but young people are leaving town for better jobs up north.
Well-heeled Aucklanders descend on Bluff once a year for its oyster festival. An early morning flight by Air New Zealand ships them down for the day, then returns them in the evening, gorged on bivalves and sauvignon blanc.
The festival, meanwhile, bills itself as “unsophisticated and proud of it!” It’s a quirky mixture of oyster-eating competitions, a maritime-themed fashion show, and liters and liters of beer and wine. Kick-off begins with the oyster being “piped in” (on a platter, and serenaded with bagpipes). Next is the Ode to the Oyster, led by a man in a tam o’shanter and tartan trews, who exclaims, “We put you on a pedestal, O Oyster from the Sea.”
But holding on to the festival has been a fight for the town. In 2007, the organizers threatened to move it to the city of Invercargill, which has nearly 25 times the population of Bluff.
Need to Know
Go to New Zealand! You’ll struggle to find Bluff oysters elsewhere. Small quantities are shipped, frozen, to Australia, but they’re very expensive and difficult to track down.
In New Zealand, however, they’re everywhere, until they run out. Even mom-and-pop fish and chip shops will usually sell a “pottle” (the technical term) of shucked oysters to go with kumara fries and battered hoki. Meanwhile, hotels and restaurants will sell them on the half shell for a couple of dollars apiece. If you want to go to Bluff's festival, it's held in May. Check for exact dates—and to make sure that year's harvest went well.