Local heroes … oysters at Bannisters Restaurant.
Summer holidays herald one thing - the annual pilgrimage to the coast.
The lure of surf and sand, with a back waft of coconut oil and the scrunch of salt-dried hair, is as much the backbone of the Australian summer holiday as the promise of eating great seafood.
Big, fat juicy king prawns, served cold with garlic mayonnaise or bathed in chilli sauce and barbecued. Tiny schoolies, or river prawns, dusted with flour and deep-fried and eaten whole. Fish - let me count the ways. Transparent slices of carpaccio, lime-caressed ceviche, cold poached, pan-fried, deep-fried. Calamari, tossed through a salad or tucked into paella. Mussels, clams, pippies … Is there no end to this piscatorial paradise?
Fresh is best … industry consultant John Susman at Sydney Fish Market. Photo: Steven Siewert
Australians love their wild-caught seafood and the NSW coast, all 2137 kilometres of it, reveals an embarrassment of riches.
In the north, there are prawns and lobsters and in the far south, abalone. From Tweed Heads to Pambula, Sydney rock oysters grow plump on phytoplankton that floats in on the tide. Pacifics come out of the water at Port Stephens, spanner crabs at Brunswick Heads. And from the south-east trawl, a fishery that spans from Barrenjoey to Lakes Entrance in Victoria, comes a cascade of fin fish - flathead, ling, silver dory, john dory, jew fish, blue grenadier, orange roughy and more.
It's an enticing cornucopia, but not always easy to find outside Sydney.
For every fish-and-chippie that dips a fillet of fresh, local fish into batter before frying, there are a dozen who simply open a box of frozen imported fish. They're doing it because it's cheap and convenient, and because we, the consumer, don't seem to mind.
It's a similar story at the fishmonger, where we pass on bright-eyed whole fish only hours out of the water in favour of grey fillets of an indeterminate age lolling in a pool of water.
And at the restaurant table, we steer a safe and steady course for fish we recognise from magazines and cookbooks. Here comes the Tasmanian salmon, blue eye cod and flounder, and there goes the sea urchin, abalone and rock lobster on its way to Sydney or overseas.
At the same time we're making gastronomic pilgrimages to Maryland crab shacks when in the US. And to the oyster bars in France for a taste of the famous Belon. Who among us doesn't have a story of eating a perfectly grilled piece of fish at a restaurant on the quay in … (insert Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal or Turkey here)?
Industry consultant John Susman from Fisheads describes a simple yet sublime lunch at Nin's Bin, a food caravan at Kaikoura on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. ''Fresh steamed crayfish between two slabs of Tip Top white sliced with butter and vinegar,'' he says. ''It's $30, but it's unbelievable.''
Is the desire to buy and eat local seafood so different from foraging in the bush or seeking out rare-breed sheep, pigs, and poultry? Is there any other food that speaks so clearly of place than seafood, especially if you can hear, see or smell the salty air of its former habitat? Where's our Nin's Bin?
As it often does, it comes down to economy of scale. NSW is a relatively small fishery, producing about 19,000 tonnes a year according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences report Australian Fisheries Statistics 2010. By comparison, South Australia's annual production is 68,000 tonnes.
''We're small in terms of production of seafood compared to other states,'' says the chairman of the Sydney Fish Market, Grahame Turk. ''But we're big in terms of consumption. NSW has about one-third of the country's consumers.''
Most of the state's 1000 fishers sell their catch into a co-operative, which then manages its on-sale on their behalf. Some of the day's catch will be sold locally, but most of it will be sent to the Sydney Fish Market auction. It's a disturbing reality that some of it will make the return trip back to the coastal town where it was caught in the cool confines of a wholesaler's refrigerated van, alongside farmed, imported and wild-caught seafood from elsewhere in Australia.
Most of the co-ops are in the north of the state. They handle small tonnages of high-value seafood, such as snapper, prawns and crab.
A good-size population and a steady trickle of visitors throughout the year provide a steady market for fresh local seafood. Surely there's room for a crab shack or two? Or a food truck parked at the end of a pier?
It's a different story in the south. Four co-ops handle high volumes of lower-value product; most is sent to Sydney. The catch isn't as varied as up north, the population is smaller and more isolated, and tourism more seasonal. And then there's also the fact that there are fewer fishers and more-restricted fisheries overall.
The good news is that there are fishers, retailers, cooks and chefs working to put quality seafood on the table in regional NSW.
One of them is fishmonger Craig Gream, also known as Freckle, who often has more than 20 species of fish for sale at the Bay Seafood Market in Byron Bay, as well as shellfish and crustaceans.
He buys all his fish whole, direct from fishers, and processes in store. ''It's hard work to do fresh whole fish,'' he says. ''Chasing it, handling it, looking after it. You're playing a numbers game, getting it in and out the door. But I don't know any different. I've been around fresh fish all my life and I couldn't do it any other way.''
We've sought out an address book of other local seafood advocates. Support them when you're on the road this summer and see if you can't find the ideal site for that crab shack.
Become a local seafood advocate
● In a restaurant, ask about local seafood and then go ahead and order it.
● At the fish-and-chip shop ask what the local fish of the day is and then go ahead and order it (especially if it's different every day).
● At the fishmonger, buy whole fish and ask them to fillet it for you (fish starts to break down as soon as it is exposed to air, so whole fish will always trounce a fillet). Also, look for country of origin labels; it pays to know where your seafood comes from.
The best of coastal NSW seafood
Where to taste local
5/6 Bells Boulevard, Salt Village, South Kingscliff, 6674 4833.
Steve Snow led the regional charge for local seafood when he opened in Brunswick Heads in 1991. He kept it as simple as grilled fish with a wedge of lemon and people were mightily impressed. Things have evolved since, but the accent on top-quality seafood remains. Snowy has a network of local suppliers and fishermen who text him a list of the day's catch while they're still out at sea. The catch of the day may well turn up on the menu as Snowy's Fish, pan-fried and finished with riesling, lemon and parsley.
The Fish Shop
107 Princes Highway, Burrill Lake, 4455 1906.
As a former fisherman, owner Zoran Praja knows his fish. Each morning he takes delivery of whole fish straight from fishermen, including his son Alex, who ply the south coast and cleans and fillets the fish at his shop. The shop does takeaway only, but there are good picnic spots within walking distance at Lion's Park, which has swings for the kids, or up at the lake's entrance.
1 Clyde Street, Batemans Bay, 4472 4052.
Steve Innes is the third-generation Innes to run the Boatshed. Like his father before him, Steve was a fisherman, but gave that away in 2008. He buys his fish direct from fishermen friends and processes it all here. Every day, three fish types are on offer: always blue grenadier, with either marlin, flake or albacore. The fish is lightly battered and fried in animal fat for a super-crisp finish. Out back is a deck over the water.
On the Pier
2 Old Punt Road, Batemans Bay, 4472 6405; onthepier.com.au.
How cool it is to actually sit over the water, on a jetty that juts into the Clyde River. The most popular menu item is oysters, harvested from Mark Ralston's oyster lease across the river. Whitefish, primarily kingfish, snapper, bream and flathead, comes up from the small co-op at Narooma, an hour to the south. ''It's really important for us to have local seafood,'' part-owner and chef Simon Whiteman says. ''People expect it and like to know their money is staying in the community.''
Rick Stein at Bannisters
191 Mitchell Parade, Mollymook, 4455 3044; bannisters.com.au.
''The Rick Stein philosophy is fresh is best,'' head chef Paul Goodenough says. The restaurant works closely with Ulladulla fish retailer Lucky's and can organise twice-daily deliveries. ''We're quite flexible with the menu so if Lucky turns up with fresh bonito, for example, it will go on the sashimi platter that day,'' Goodenough says. Bannisters buys both whole fish and fillets and, Goodenough says, ''we treat our fish very well''.
Ulladulla Oyster Bar
Shop 5, The Plaza, 107 Princes Highway, Ulladulla, 0419 219 275.
Ewan McAsh totes bags of his Sydney rocks straight from his Clyde River lease to this hip and happening little oyster bar in the centre of Ulladulla. He's there, serving oysters and shaking cocktails, whenever he's in town.
Where to buy local
The Bay Seafood Market
Corner Fletcher and Lawson streets, Byron Bay, 6685 5660.
''You've got to buy with your eyes,'' says Craig Gream, known to all as ''Freckle''. If that's the maxim, then you're bound to leave here bowed down under the weight of bags of fresh fish, crustaceans and shellfish. Gream goes the extra mile, buying from local fishermen and even travelling up to Bundaberg in Queensland to pick up stock, and processing it all at the shop.
Commercial Fishermen's Co-op
97 Hannell Street, Wickham, Newcastle, 4965 4229.
Seafood from a network of smaller co-ops from Tuggerah to Seal Rocks feeds the appetite of this centralised beast. Half the catch finds its way to Sydney and the other half remains in the region. A great range of fish is always on display. The catch could include flathead, mullet, luderick, bream and snapper. There's also lobsters from Nelson Bay and Newcastle, squid and octopus, and king and school prawns.
It's Wild Seafood
12/21 Hurley Drive, Coffs Harbour, 6652 3000; itswildseafood.com.au.
Third-generation fisherman Phil Ward and his son Kane and their two fishing trawlers, the Henry Lawson and Gemini Star, work the sea off Coffs Harbour for prawns and fish. They process the catch themselves, at their factory, and sell the blast-frozen prawns and fish, as well as fresh fish, on Thursday at the Coffs Harbour Growers Market in City Square. It's a small window of opportunity to enjoy their fish, but one worth taking.
2/39 Deering Street, Ulladulla, 4455 6300.
Ulladulla is the quintessential fishing village with a long, proud fishing history. Today, a fleet of about 12 boats operates out of the harbour, and Alan Forrest, or ''Lucky'' to his friends, likes to get his hands on as much local supply as he can. On any given day there'll be a wide selection of fish, as well as Sydney rock oysters from Batemans Bay, shelf and eastern rock lobsters and even sashimi-grade swordfish. The shop is a delight: clear signage, clean and tidy surrounds, and a small selection of gourmet grocery items.
Northern Rivers Seafood
1 Pacific Highway, Ballina, 6686 2187; 0418 116 035.
There is always something to delight at Rob Moir's shop. Tiny river prawns in season, kingfish caught off Iluka, or lovely thick slices of swordfish. ''We don't buy imported fish at all,'' says Moir, who talks to ''his two boats'', the fishermen he buys from, every day. ''I really love fresh seafood. I just want to sell good food.''
1 Reservoir Street, Tathra, 6494 1453; tathraoysters.com.au.
Gary and Jo Rodely's big, fat, delicious and creamy Sydney rock oysters are at their best over summer, which explains the constant chime of the doorbell as the door swings open for customers. Half the Rodelys' customers buy the oysters closed, saying there's nothing like the taste of a just-opened oyster.
If you're lacking the necessary skill, or patience, go for the opened ones. And if you're just passing through the area, Jo can direct you to a nice spot with water views to sit and enjoy your oysters. Tathra Oysters supplies restaurants direct, including Rockpool Bar & Grill and Otto. The Rodelys also sell to customers online.
Barbara Sweeney is the regional editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.