Steve Feletti remembers the first time he ate an oyster: he was 14. While on holidays in Ulladulla on the New South Wales south coast, Feletti’s mother presented him with an empty glass jar and instructed him to go down to the shore and fill it with oysters.
It was, Feletti remembers, a typically hot summer’s day and the young kid from the bush had neglected to bring any refreshments with him on his mission.
“After a while I started to get thirsty and hungry,” Feletti laughs. “All of a sudden, these oysters started to look attractive and I thought I might try one. Needless to say, mother didn’t get too many in the jar…”
So began what Feletti freely describes as an addiction. An international marketing guru turned Australian oyster messiah, his romantically titled brands like Clair de Lune, Moonlight en Surface and The Rusty Wire have celebrated chefs hooked. “Our artisan farmer Steve Feletti, he’s so artisanal he almost refuses to get involved,” says Melbourne Pub Group’s head chef Paul Wilson, a vocal supporter of Feletti’s work. “But we always convince him.”
While Feletti is the toast of the oyster world, only 10 years ago the farmer was a world away in Japan and thinking of anything but bivalves. “I fell into it by default,” he says.
During his time in Tokyo, Feletti bought himself a rundown oyster lease in Batemans Bay, purely to go fishing whenever he visited Australia. But when he fell upon harder times, the entrepreneur discovered what he considered the untapped potential of Australian oysters.
“Japan’s the most sophisticated food market on the planet,” says Feletti. “At that stage I thought I could apply all the marketing that I’d learned over there to this very under-marketed, and this very tragically-treated luxury food.”
Most Australian oyster eaters – of which there are relatively few compared to places like France – tend to eat our oysters pre-shucked and rinsed with water. An unapologetic epicurean, Feletti considers this a travesty: “In France, with a production rate of 10 or 14 times of Australia, not a single oyster is sold pre-shucked and tap-rinsed – it’s against the law,” he says. “But in Australia, probably 98 per cent of product is probably pre-shucked, tap-rinsed, which is the biggest tragedy ever.”
With Moonlight Flat, Feletti only settles for the best. Grown, harvested, and packed by hand – and never, ever, under any circumstances sold shucked – Feletti’s Moonlight Flat Oysters are available only at the most select range of restaurants across the country.
If you’re fortunate enough to be eating one of Feletti’s oysters, the staff serving it to you have been specially trained to do so. “We’ve never had to advertise, it’s been all word-of-mouth stuff,” says Feletti. “We treat them as luxury products, we present them as luxury products and they command a luxury price because that’s where they should be.”
Moonlight Flat, however, isn’t just about presenting oysters with the respect they deserve. Chefs love his oysters for their delicate flavour, which stems from Feletti’s careful cultivation techniques and the purity of the river from where they come. “It’s got to be the water,” says Wilson. “The Clyde River in Bateman’s Bay, that whole area, it’s like god’s country. There’s a beautiful coastline, there’s very little pollution, and there’s very little human contact. It’s unbelievable.”
Feletti claims his lease is among the finest in the state, if not the country, where fresh water from the Budawangs flow into the Pacific Ocean. “This estuary that we’re in is probably one of the most benign, positive, fertile places for growing oysters,” he says. “The striking characteristic of estuaries is that they’re fresh water flowing into the sea. That’s why our oysters are often quite sweet.”
This mixing of fresh water from the mountains into the salt water of the sea is, to Feletti’s mind, what makes his oysters so damn good. “One should look for a balance between salinity and fresh water, which produces that sweet middle spot,” he says.
But no matter how fantastic Moonlight Flat oysters may be, they’re not going to start popping up everywhere. Oyster addicts will still have to go out of their way to find Feletti’s products, and that’s just the way he wants it. “These are not hamburgers. They’re not McDonald’s industrial oysters, thanks very much,” he exclaims. “Oysters are too important.”
A selection of Feletti’s Moonlight Flat Oysters, along with other varieties, will be on offer at this year’s OYSTER FRENZY at the Albert Park Hotel, where, for $75, addicts can eat as many molluscs as their heart desires.