Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In Search of the Perfect Oyster

It's not as easy as you might think. Even if you know where they are.
            Bee, an old friend from Toronto, came to visit us this weekend.  Bee likes seafood, we wanted a road trip - so we told him all about the oysters and tuna up at Port Lincoln and Coffin Bay.
            The tuna is so fresh it leaps out of the water right onto your plate, we told him.
            The oysters glow like pearls and taste like the sea, if the sea is made of velvet and rolls on the tongue like dry white wine.  They are served in blue-glazed bowls of rock salt, still dripping with the water that you can see from the terrace where you will sit, golden in the afternoon light, drinking wine and watching the sea-birds floating on the bay.
            It was a tough sell, all right.

Bee flew in Friday evening and we brought a friend over for dinner to talk up the oysters some more, just in case Bee might imagine changing his mind.  And we talked him into a bang-up dinner at del Giornos, the best seafood restaurant this side of Melbourne, for an apres-oyster-snack.
            Saturday morning dawned thick, gray and heavy.  We breakfasted skimpily on toast and a thin scraping of jam, and strode, noble of purpose and single of mind, out of the house and locked the door behind us.  On the road we drove straight and swift - there was no time to stop and show the scenery to Bee - we were people prepared to drive three hours for lunch, and that requires a certain public commitment of purpose. Happy snaps could be taken from the car.
            We stopped briefly in Cowell to buy water, and I slipped a pack of biscuits into the shopping cart. Back in the car, I tried to slip one into the mouth of Mr Tabubil, who was driving.  Bee batted it out of my hand.  
             "We're saving ourselves for Oysters!"  He told me sternly, and began playing Men At Work songs very loudly over the stereo.  "I've always wanted to do this!"  He chortled. "Man!  Real Australian driving music in real Australia!  I love it!"
            So I put the biscuits away and we head-banged until we were almost in Port Arno.

After Cowell, the land turned from stony brown scrub to green.  Thick velvety green. Television advertisements for Scottish whiskey green.  Mr Tabubil drove draped over the steering wheel, drinking it in with his mouth open, while I fogged up the back windows, and we stared at the wheat fields and thought we could never see enough of it.  Even if we never ever left again.

            "Looks like Saskatchewan."  Bee said.  "No-one at home will believe it!  I'm supposed to be in the outback, man!  Can we get out and take a photo?"
            "Nuts to that!"  Said Mr Tabubil, and stomped down on the accelerator.   "We're still an hour and thirty-two minutes out.  Lunch ends in an hour and fifty-five minutes.  This is No Time to Stop!"
            As we closed in on Port Lincoln, the green grew greener and the gray clouds drew lower and it began to rain. At the edge of town, we met the Flinders Highway and turned inland.  Cutting across the peninsula, we barreled on through the hills, down long swooping roads that ran between white split-rail fences and stands of tall black pines.
            "Oysters!"  Bee chanted, fist-pumping the roof of the car.  "Oysters!  Oysters!  Oysters!  Hey! Is that Coffin Bay down there?  It's gorgeous, guys!  Look at that water!"

We were on the home stretch now. We came swinging down the hill toward the water, and clawed the car back to a sedate forty kilometers an hour and rounded a bend and saw the bay spread out before us, full of fishing boats and oyster-beds and heavy pregnant clouds.  And the Oysterbeds Café - dark and silent and shuttered-looking.

And a sign on the door.  "Closed for Winter. "

Operation Seafood was a total bust.

The only other place to eat in Coffin Bay was a small take-out joint next door to the shuttered Oysterbeds. It sold meat pies and pizza as a favor to the off-season hungry, or possibly as a lure: inside we came face to face with shelves of horrible homemade shell arrangements.  "Five Dollars and Up for Your Happy Holiday Memories!"
            We shared a small and very nasty pizza, with slabs of mutant anchovy and tiny, lurid-pink supermarket prawns lurking under a layer of cheese.  The boys claimed to enjoy it.  It wasn't quite raining, so we mooched about Coffin Bay and took pictures of slate-gray water under slate-gray sky and took lugubrious photographs to advertise our state of mind.

Exercise brings on endorphins, whether you want it to or not. As we walked, the clouds parted, mirroring our rising moods.  
            "It's like a waterfall" Bee said, awed.  Above us, the sky was splitting open; the low overcast peeling apart along a seam that ran across the sky from horizon to horizon.

The gash in the clouds stood half a mile high - straight and vertical as if it had been planed with a protractor and a ruler and a t-square.  The cloud was a floating layer of white meringue, a bed of marshmallow cut with a sharp knife, a towering cliff of splendid majestical softness- and over its lip a cataract of white foam thundered silently - like a Niagara so vast that the sound ceased to matter or be heard.  Softened, we drove back through the hills, rumbling quietly between split-rail fences and diary herds and into Port Lincoln at last.


In the late afternoon we drove into the national park and stood walked into opalescent sunsets and listened to kangaroos stepping out of the scrub into the gathering dark.  In the car, we rumbled at walking pace along the dirt roads and watched the kangaroos, who have no road sense - or any other sort of sense - poke their noses out of the shrubbery and bounce nonchalantly onto the verges.  They all missed us.  Or we missed them.  However you want to look at it.

            And then - at last, with choirs and golden trumpets, Del Giornos!  The best seafood - the best food- between Adelaide and Perth!  We had actually called ahead about this one, so we knew that dinner, at least, was still happening.  Long before our reservation we were banging on the door - one third of a small and nasty pizza half a day ago doesn't take you very far.  We were ravenous!
            Seated and napkined and watered, we emphatically ordered the Mega-Blowout Seafood Platter - for three, thank you, and lots of it.  While the chefs rattled and banged and collided frantically in the kitchen, we kept a waitress hopping and took out most of the restaurant's weekly profits in plates of fresh bread and butter and ginger-beer.
            A flushed and steaming sous-chef emerged from the kitchens and dropped a dream - a poem of seafood onto our table.  We drew in our breaths - this was it!
            And it was wonderful - the prawns served thusly, the squid done thisly, the crumbed whiting a poem, the bowl of mussels a dream of garlic and tomato and wine, and the oysters - the boys didn't say.  Couldn't say.  They sat quietly, oyster shells in their hands, soft smiles on their faces, staring out across far horizons.
            And then we sighed, and dipped our spoons again, and ate.
            And ate.
            And when we were done, we paid a kind soul to roll us away down the street.

In the morning, quiet and green, it was back to del Giornos for a brunch of eggs Benedict and sausage, and then we went home. The sun was shining and we weren't in any particular hurry, so we stopped to take photographs of the green fields to remember them by.

Amazingly, the boys actually wanted lunch.  So we stopped in Cowell for fresh fish and chips. 
            Cowell is a small coastal oyster-farming town with two pubs, one IGA, a CWA hall and the nicest public lavatories I have ever seen. Public lavatories in small towns are generally very very nice - whether it arises from a large public pride or just a smaller number of ugly lummoxes stomping through, the toilets and the counters always sparkle, the taps never drip, the soap dispenser is always full, the mirrors, always unscratched, are polished to a shine and I can say without hyperbole or fear of contradiction that I would happily eat my lunch off of some of those sink-surrounds.  But I have never met a public lavatory like the one in Cowell.  Tucked inside an old mews behind the Council Hall, the Ladies Lavatory has table runners and a bowl of interesting shells to look at while you wash your hands, and original artwork all over the walls.  The Auxiliary Art Guild has claimed the space as an exhibition hall - and hung still lifes in the toilet stalls.

The Gents, being a Gents, wasn't quite so genteelly fitted out.  We took ourselves on a grand tour of inspection of the ladies, and drove home on a pink cloud of glittering delight.  A weekend that ends with painting of flowers in a bathroom by the sea is a good one, all right.

No comments:

Post a Comment