Hemingway hunted big game in Africa. I went hunting last week too. For oysters.
I realise, to "hunt" something that spends only the first 3 weeks of its spratty life swimming around before finding a rock to attach itself to for the rest of its days, sounds ridiculous. Even to me.
But I was on the trail of a very specific oyster. The Knysna oyster. Mentioned in every South Africa Garden Route travel and restaurant guide we got our grubby food-stained hands on. The raison d'etre of the Knysna Oyster Club, set up in the 1920s. Farmed by the Knysna Oyster Company in the Knysna lagoon since 1949. Celebrated by the town at a festival each July for the last 26 years. The flashpoint for selling 65,000 bednights at last year's festival, raking in 60m ZAR for the local economy and -- through sporting event-charity partnerships -- raising over 1m ZAR for charities, according to Knysna Review, a glossy municipal marketing magazine. Described by the same publication as "famous for its fresh nutty taste, unique to oysters in this area".
And, as it turns out, now much more elusive than Knysna's other marine celebrity, the Knysna seahorse.
Babs and I had been walking in circles on Thesens Island in Knysna this mid November afternoon, cross-checking our various maps and restaurant guides. There is no sign of the Knysna Oyster Company tavern to be found. No building backyards filled with racks or little boats or grizzly men in wellies, or any other telltale sign of an oyster farming operation. Just a slick restaurant and retail arcade and a swathe of shiny and shuttered waterfront housing developments that our hostel proprietor described (bang-on) as "very Truman Show meets Stepford Wives".
I ask a convenience store cashier for directions.
"They're closed," she said.
I was crestfallen, but asked what time they would reopen for dinner or the next day.
"No, I mean they closed about 3 months ago," she said.
I started squawking in my head. I asked what happened. She shrugged.
I spent the evening trawling the news. Surely given the Knysna oyster's position in the town's marketing message such a closure could not have come and gone quietly?
Finally, a Nov 2008 report in the Herald said "South African National Parks (SANParks) will not renew the lease of the Knysna Oyster Company restaurant next year and is still deciding on the future of the 12,5-hectare oyster farm in the lagoon."
The site was being tendered out for redevelopment. Plans included "a boutique hotel, possibly incorporating a pier-mounted café, seven retail shops, the existing SANParks offices, space for a flea market, a houseboat marina, marine filling station and restaurant".
In SANPark's tender process information memo dated April 2009, it stated that the winning bidder for the restaurant site was not obliged to continue running an oyster restaurant, and even if it chose to do so, the winning bidder -- even if it were the Knysna Oyster Company -- would not be awarded automatic rights to farm oysters in the lagoon.
I trawled for the results of the tender, which was to be decided at the end of June 2009. The only update I managed to find was a post by a South African Hotel and Restaurant industry website dated Oct 2009, stating that SANParks was (still) looking for an operator for the restaurant site. This particular round of proposals are due on Nov 25.
The next morning I checked in with out hostel proprietor to see if she had the latest local news.
"Oh jaaaaaa. They lost their lease," she said. "They moved in with the Oystercatcher, which they also own. Thesens Quays. Behind the railway station."
A fresh lead! I noted the location on the map. What about the oyster farm?
"Oh jaaa they still farm Knysna oysters."
We zipped over, and there it was, a classic seaside boardwalk structure complete with a giant tobasco bottle as a roof-top adornment, with signages from both The Oystercatcher and the Knysna Oyster Company on its front exterior wall.
It's mid-afternoon, but the indoor dining room is full (a good sign, I thought), so we sit outside, and order 18 oysters -- 9 cultivated (i.e. farmed), 9 coastal (wild).
When our waiter brings out our platters, I ask him when and why the tavern moved. His face fell and he sighed.
"A lot of stuff happened. A lot of politics. We had to close everything. The restaurant. The farm. Everything. Right after the festival this year at the end of July," he said.
I looked down at my platter. So where are these oysters from, then?
"Well, Chile. The sprats are from Chile. Then farmed in Port Elizabeth. The same as always. Before they would start out in Port Elizabeth then spend some time maturing in Knysna, then finish maturing in Port Elizabeth, then get back here for processing. Now they just do it all Port Elizabeth."
And the coastals?
"Well...they're South African, if that's what you mean."
But where in South Africa, I persisted, recalling the unique-flavour-of-this-area-bla-bla-bla schtick.
"Well, maybe here, maybe Mossel Bay... I don't know. Anywhere they can find them, really."
Not an alum of the terroir-ist school then.
What about the festival? Was there going to be one next year?
"There's always going to be a Knysna Oyster Festival. It's a big thing for this town. Look, it's no different. It's exactly the same oysters as before," he said in that tone of voice that suggested that even though it was his job to be nice to me, I had reached the point where I was acting like a Stepford wife throwing sparks and smoke and asking too many questions, and it was time to slurp down and shut up.
So. There will still be Knysna Oyster Festivals, it seems. Supermarket chain Pick n Pay has already signed on to sponsor the festival right through till 2013, according to the Knysna Review. And next year is likely to be a bumper one, what with South Africa hosting the World Cup.
But a little semantics for those whom these niggly details matter. Until further notice from South Africa foodies, it's the festival that Knysnan. Not the oyster.
Knysna Oyster Company / Oystercatcher
Thesen's Quays (behind the railway station)
Knysna, South Africa