There are many ways to shuck an oyster, but if we’re honest, a lot of people end up smashing it on the table with a mallet.
But not Jim Yiannaros.
The New South Wales south coast oyster farmer is on his way to Ireland to compete in the International Oyster Opening Championships.
He is the deeply humble darling of the Australian oyster shucking scene and he can open, clean and present 30 oysters in 2 minutes and 39 seconds flat.
“The game plan is not to have too many Irish whiskeys, not too many Guinnesses,” he says.
“And go as fast as I can.”
“Narooma’s response to the Melbourne Cup”
Mr Yiannaros secured his ticket to Galway at the Narooma Oyster Festival earlier this year after organizers acquired the rights to the official Australian Oyster Shucking Championship.
“We’re so excited for Jim to go,” said festival organizer Cath Peachey.
“Once in a while he gets caught out by his twin brother, John, or his apprentice. But Jim has been a pretty consistent champion, so we’re glad he’s the first recipient of this trip.”
The festival has grown from a small community event to one of the biggest weekends on the South East New South Wales calendar with over 10,000 people in attendance.
Each year the organizers increase the size of the marquee set up for the chipping race.
“It’s a wild crowd behind their oyster openers, behind their favorite from whatever estuary or lake they come from,” says Ms Peachey.
“It’s the equivalent of Narooma at the Melbourne Cup. To be able to send Jim to the world championships in Ireland is truly a dream come true.”
Training begins on a milk crate
Mr. Yiannaros’ earliest memories of shucking oysters date back to the age of eight when he was put to work in the family kitchen with his brother.
“We couldn’t reach the bench, we were too small,” says Yiannaros.
“My old man was piling up crates of milk to top it off and we were starting to open the oysters.”
The family moved to Batemans Bay and started working in the industry after her father, who had emigrated to Australia in 1957, learned the trade at a Melbourne fishmonger.
“One guy was doing 10 dozen and resting, and the other was doing 10 dozen, and it wasn’t long before we were doing 20 dozen an hour at age eight,” Yiannaros says.
Today the twins run their own farm near Batemans Bay, on the fourth largest estuary for oyster suppliers to the Australian market.
The region mainly produces Sydney rock oysters, which have nothing to do with the native Irish oysters used in the world championships.
Mr. Yiannaros trains with Ingasi oysters, which are round and flat, a closer copy of what he will be competing with.
He customized his knife and did some research on the species, watching chipping videos online.
Competitors must open and clean the oysters without tearing the flesh or injuring themselves. Any blood is an automatic disqualification.
“I’m quite nervous,” says Mr. Yiannaros.
“But it will be an experience.”
Fire, flood and food
It’s been a tough few years being an oyster farmer in New South Wales.
Since the Black Summer bushfires in 2019/20, the Eurobodalla Shire – where the Yiannaros Oyster Farm operates – has suffered nine declared flood emergencies.
Oysters grow less well in fresh water, and debris from the fires has also impacted the river where they are harvested.
And then sales plummeted during the pandemic as demand from restaurants plummeted.
“They’ve had a tough time over the past few years, but they’re the most resilient group, and it’s a pleasure to see them in action,” Ms Peachey said.
She says that although the ticket to Galway is a brilliant price, there is something else competitors are looking for.
“The journey is exciting, but I think quietly the farmers are really enjoying the glory…holding that trophy, being the winner. There is a very nice camaraderie,” she says.
And how will the Australian champion compete with an international team?
“I think Jim wants to give them a hard time,” she says.