”Who’s wearing paua?” the MC yells. He’s holding a microphone and doesn’t need to yell, but he’s amped. The crowd shuffles as a woman makes her way to the stage, holding an arm up to show her paua bracelet, to grab the prize of a dozen oysters in a take-out pottle. If she’s anything like me and the other 5000-odd guests at the Bluff Oyster Festival, she’ll have had her fill of oysters already.
But, some would say you can never have enough. I find I have a limit. I’ve eaten fresh, plump oysters raw, deep fried in batter, and in a really good pie. There were also prawns, seafood gumbo, blue cod parcels, smoked salmon butties, mussel fritters and scallops on the menu – but, boy, the oysters were good. And that’s what the occasion is: toasting the magical little creature that keeps Bluff pumping.
This one day a year, it’s all respect for the oyster. It is ‘piped in’ with solemn Scottish majesty. An ode to the oyster is composed, kapa haka is performed in tribute and local kids dress up in sea-themed cuteness (I particularly liked the flounder). The grown-ups compete to shuck the fastest and eat the most. An Irish band packs up as the MC banters. Now he’s got a mutton bird to give away. Who in the crowd has the biggest beer pot? His jokes get funnier and less family-appropriate as the afternoon wears on.
I watch a Japanese woman shepherd her tribe through the crowd and wonder what she thinks of this salty corner of New Zealand. She’s smiling widely and nodding to those who raise their bottles and wine glasses high and away, to avoid spilling on the children’s heads.
On stage is another band, with banjo, a couple of fiddles, acoustic guitars and a charismatic singer who asks how many are from Bluff. What about from Taranaki, from Stewart Island? From Wellington, Christchurch, the West Coast? All are well represented. Some people dance. An old guy in a shearer’s singlet, loose pants and baggy sunhat; a couple of women in lacy black outfits, with tie-dyed scarves tied into their long hair; small girls find courage in numbers and barefoot boys run in tight circles.
As the day slides toward evening, parents start calling those hyped-up boys with hand signals. Back to the car! Loud laughter spills from the bar tent. A knot of young women dressed for a warmer day clink glasses and toast the plate of oysters delivered to within their reach. Another watches patiently as her boyfriend scoffs another mussel fritter sandwich. I hear her say that actually, yes, she is still hungry and could he wait there while she goes to buy something? It makes me realise I have room for more, after all.
In the nearest tent I pay for another half dozen of the freshest oysters I am ever likely to eat and chat briefly to a shucker who has spent the day flicking a lethal blade into the palm of his hand with alarming speed. How many has he opened today? He’s one of ten, he explains – and his team has opened 1200 dozen. The band’s taking a break as I step out to eat mine and the MC’s back on the mic, another prize held aloft. It goes to Elvis of the South.
This year’s Bluff Oyster Festival is on Saturday, May 24.
Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Winter 2019 issue