Getting Gonta is a story, written for bluetoyellow.com by Alex Frishberg.
Based on a true story, Alex tells the tale of two Ukrainian friends who set off across the globe to rescue their beloved Gonta. This is the second of part in a three part series. Read part 1 here.
GETTING GONTA. PART 2
The voyage from Vladivostok to Australia began innocently enough. The longliner Volga was a rust-streaked, run-down looking vessel, yet it carried the latest, the most sophisticated communications equipment. It slowly moved along the rugged, fir-trimmed coastline, passing remote villages.
Through the Sea of Japan their ship sailed to the East China Sea, then from the Philippine Sea to the Indian Ocean, crossing the equator, towards their final desination, Australia. Delivering their daily catch to tiny, unlit ports of questionable repute, they worked long days in harsh weather and slept the rest of the time, without an opportunity to go ashore. Naturally, Nikolai and Alexei did not recall the string of exotic Asian ports the ship had visited on their voyage to Patagonia: Pusan, Nagasaki, Hong Kong, Manila, Davao.
While living on Volga, Nikolai and Alexei learned just how difficult a fisherman’s life really was. Soaked by waves of frigid ocean water and blasted by wind chill below zero, it was truly hard labor. Cold, noise and stress were an integral part of the fisherman’s daily routine. In fact, the only respite from work was in their turbulent bunks or in the stifling galleys, where men would gulp a few shots of vodka between shifts. Otherwise, for Alexei the waking hours consisted of cooking tasteless meals, while Nikolai would be buried in the engine room with homemade ear-plugs sticking out of his head. The rare glimpses of the ocean were anything but majestic. Every day, the same steel-gray, dreary sky and dark, murky water.
Eventually Volga cleared the bottom of the Indian Ocean after bucking weeks of gale-force head winds, just so that Alexei and Nikolai could get to sunny, warm Australia. Instead, they ended up drifting endlessly in the choppy, freezing waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.
For those who have never been there before, the Southern Ocean is the ring of ocean that circles Antarctica. Its greatest depth is around four kilometres. Very few boats tend to venture out this far. And that is precisely where the captain wanted to be: near the Heard Island and McDonald Islands, those barren and uninhabited isles that lie in Sub-Antarctic waters on the little-known Kerguelen Plateau about four thousand kilometres south-west of the Australian continent.
Pristine and remote, they have no indigenous culture or population. In fact, no human had ever seen these islands until 1853, when an American sealer, Captain John Heard, accidentally spotted one of the islands while sailing from Boston to Melbourne on a mission to kill lots of seals. He reported the discovery and, thus, the island was named after him. Six weeks later Captain William McDonald similarly discovered the nearby McDonald Islands, thereby immortalizing himself, too.
To this very day, Heard and McDonald islands have the least disturbed sub-Antarctic environment on earth. And the freezing ocean water around them is home of the Patagonian toothfish, a delicacy also known as Chilean Sea Bass. Technically speaking, the Patagonian toothfish is not even related to the sea bass family. Rather, it is a demersal species found at the sea bottom, primarily off islands in the southern oceans close to Antarctica, like Heard and McDonalds territories. As it happens, the toothfish are one of the largest species of fish occurring in the Antarctic, reaching 7 feet in length and up to 220 pounds in weight, and they often live up to 50 years in deep water, until they are caught on longlines by poachers.
The delicious and lucrative toothfish is so highly prized among the pirate community that it’s branded ‘white gold’ by industrial long-range fishing fleets. In fact, a full catch is often worth more than the sophisticated long-line fishing vessels like Volga that poach them. The high market value, together with the remoteness of the fishing grounds and lack of surveillance, provided ideal circumstances for Volga’s poaching.
Day after day, the exhausted fishermen would drop countless longlines, which are baited and barbed fishing lures attached to monofilament line, set two kilometers down into the icy ocean to catch the coveted Patagonian toothfish. A longline that is used to catch this fish can stretch for more then a dozen miles and carry more then 15,000 baited hooks. While hunting after the precious toothfish, Volga’s long-range fishing lines would inevitably capture an array of wild-looking creatures from the deep waters: rabbitfish, sea-bat, snotfish and even hagfish, which suffocates its prey with slime. Most exotic of all to Nikolai and Alexei, however, was the monster squid that was accidentally caught on one of the deep-sea longlines. The whole crew got to see it.
The colossal squid tried to swim away with its muscular fins, using its big funnel for powerful jet propulsion, but it was a futile fight. With a great struggle the crew lanced the animal and then maneuvered it into their net and painstakingly hauled it aboard—a two-hour process—leaving it limp on the deck for all to see. And what a sight it was!
“Holy shit!” the men would gasp, staring at the deadly deep-ocean giant.
“So all those stories were true,” Nikolai whispered to Alexei, as if the squid would overhear him.
“That this thing would capsize entire ships and then swallow all the people alive. Just look at it!”
By this time, Alexei and Nikolai were used to the countless albatross and other seabirds that drown on these baited lines, but the landing of that colossal squid, a massive monster weighing 990 pounds, was rather disturbing. The sheer size of the beast overwhelmed everyone because it was a frightening glimpse into the mysterious world deep beneath the waves, awaiting any unfortunate sailor that accidentally ends up overboard. Indeed, the gigantic squid was a very impressive, fearsome sight. It had eyes as wide as dinner plates and larger than a blue whale’s, a sharp slicing beak and a tongue covered in sharp teeth.
Its eight arms and two long feeding tentacles were armed with toothed suckers and sharp hooks. It was the stuff sea legends were made of, a genuine monster of the deep. Nobody on board slept that night, knowing that other creatures like him were waiting in the waters right below them.
* * *
By now, Alexei and Nikolai had lived deep in the Southern Ocean for weeks, wearing wet foul-weather gear. They slept in cold cabins dripping with condensation, moist with seawater that somehow found a way in. Eventually it became clear to Alexei and Nikolai that the captain had no intention of coming anywhere near Australia, though they could not figure out why. To be so close to Gonta, and not to be able to get her, was simply unbearable.
At night, as Volga rocked heavily in the powerful gusts of wind, they would fall asleep, dreaming of different ways to reach their destination. Yet no practical solutions would come to mind, other than to simply jump off at the very next port and hope to find work on anything that sailed towards Australia. Admittedly, it was not a very good plan, but it was all Nikolai and Alexei could come up with.
One day, an Australian survey vessel accidentally spotted the Russian-flagged longliner fishing in Australia’s exclusive economic zone near the McDonald and Heard Islands. It promptly alerted the Australian Maritime Patrol and Response Unit within the Enforcement Operations Branch of Customs, which was designed specifically to combat illegal foreign fishing in Australia’s northern and southern waters. Of course, Triton came to the rescue as fast as its powerful engines would allow. Triton was a large armed patrol and response vessel, the Customs’ latest acquisition. It was operated by a civilian crew of fourteen and carried twenty eight heavily armed Customs Boarding Party officers.
The Triton was accompanied by the Oceanic Viking, a vessel used to conduct armed patrols of the Southern Ocean year-round in virtually all weather conditions. The 105-meter Oceanic Viking was fitted with two deck mounted 0.50 calibre machine guns and had a fully equipped medical center. Naturally, it carried an extra crew that was capable of sailing any apprehended vessel. It also had a so-called “Boarding Party” of specially trained Customs officers, armed with loaded guns, ready to fire anytime.
As soon as Volga’s captain noticed Australian ships on the horizon, he knew that he was in very big trouble. An arrest of his vessel meant that litigation costs would eat away his share of the profits, not those of Volga’s owners. An old, crusty sailor, who perpetually reeked of cheap vodka, the captain screamed over the intercom to the engine room, slurring his words, “let’s get the fuck out of here! On the double!”
“Yes, Captain,” Nikolai replied, gunning the engines to the hilt. It took several minutes for Volga to begin slowly moving forward, away from the authorities.
“Faster, faster, go, go, go!” the Captain yelled to Nikolai. “Move it, you bastard!”
The captain had no fear before man or God, and he valiantly pulled out all the stops to make a run for the Island of Mauritius. From personal experience the captain knew that Mauritius always turned a blind eye to pirate boats landing their illegal catch in its port. It was his only chance, so the captain went for it.
Indeed, Mauritius is one of the major trans-shipment points of illegally caught toothfish to markets around the world, followed by Namibia, Uruguay and, increasingly, Indonesia. Like the others, it does not officially report the volume value and destination of its toothfish exports, but anyone in the business knows that Mauritius ships fish to Chile, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States. In fact, Mauritius is the port of choice for landings of pirate-caught toothfish. From there, this “Chilean Seabass” finds its way to the fish counter all over the world.
Despite Nikolai’s valiant efforts to squeeze some speed out of Volga, the fish-heavy longliner was no match for the Customs Southern Ocean Maritime Patrol and Response Unit, whose troops fast-roped onto Volga’s stern and boarded the ship without any delay. In a short while, Alexei and Nikolai, along with the rest of the crew, were busted for illegal fishing near Heard Island, with a self-incriminating catch of Patagonian toothfish weighing 200 tons, estimated to be worth $2.5 million, tightly packed away in the fish hold. It did not help that Volga was also transporting various types of illegal equipment, including nets which pick up just about everything, including small fish, as well as baited longlines. They were accused of poaching toothfish in Australian waters and promptly arrested. Navy crews were put aboard the vessel, which set course for Fremantle, Western Australia.
On the day of Alexei and Nikolai’s arrival to Fremantle, the Prime Minister proudly announced on television that “a new breed of pirates is plundering Australia’s fisheries. As a result, we must boost protection of our sovereign interests in the Southern Ocean with full-time armed patrols to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in Australia’s ecologically fragile sub-Antarctic waters.”
The Prime Minister added that the new budget would allocate nearly $90 million for additional surveillance and enforcement capability of the Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding Heard Island and McDonald Islands, in addition to the $217 million for a customs-managed, armed Southern Ocean patrol program “in order to allow Customs Southern Ocean Maritime Patrol to intercept and bring to court those suspected of illegally plundering Australia’s fisheries.”
In the next few days, while the crew was locked down in Volga with armed guards posted outside, the Australian legal system delivered its first judgment: as a matter of principle, Australia will refuse to release the vessel unless a hefty bail was handed over pending prosecution of Volga’s crew. Vilified in the press as a pirate with a gang of hardened criminals “who put personal profit before the future of marine ecosystem,” and rightfully accused of illegally plundering Australian fisheries, the captain died rather unfortunately after drinking a bottle of cleaning fluid while the boat was detained. For the record, the captain was not suicidal; he simply ran out of vodka.
To avoid similar incidents of civil disobedience, the crew was asked to surrender their passports. Afterwards, they were promptly released on their own recognizance, pending litigation. With no money, the men had to spend their nights sleeping in a homelessshelter, hoping to be taken in by the local families. Unlike the rest of the crew, however, Nikolai and Alexei immediately recognized their unexpected change of fortune, and they did not waste any time waiting around for litigation to begin.
* * *
Perth is a very nice, quiet city on the west coast of Australia. It’s blessed with a Mediterranean climate, beautiful beaches, excellent seafood, and smiling, friendly people. By the time Nikolai and Alexei reached the city, however, they did not appreciate its ambiance. Being flat broke and hitch hiking in Australia meant sitting in the back of a rusty, flat-bed pick-up truck, flying at eighty miles per hour down a red dirt road in the suffocating desert heat. It was quite a shocking contrast to their life aboard Volga in the middle of the freezing ocean.
Although Fremantle is only nineteen kilometers southwest of Perth, Nikolai and Alexei felt drained by the uncomfortable, bumpy ride under the scorching midday sun. Yet somehow they managed to arrive to the harbor that was circled on their well-worn map, the one where Gonta has been moored for over a year.
At long last, Alexei and Nikolai stood on the promenade, facing thousands of sailboats, large and small. Instead of feeling the triumph of victory, however, they were totally lost. Even worse, they were stranded in a strange land without any currency or even an English dictionary. And with so many boats out there, how would they find Gonta?
“So what do we do now?” Alexei wondered aloud. “Which one of them is her?”
“Let’s ask someone,” Nikolai offered helpfully. “I’ll show them her name in English, and let ‘em figure it out. I mean, it’s their country and they all speak English, even if we can’t understand them. A child could probably do it.”
Alexei looked at Nikolai skeptically, and for good reason. Having just arrived from a long haul around the globe in a Soviet-era fishing boat, they both looked like pre-historic cavemen who, by pure accident, came into contact with civilization. Their sun-burned skin, clumps of unwashed hair and red dust that settled on those coarse, bearded faces, would surely frighten off any Australian human being, Alexei thought.
At the same time, Alexei had no other solutions, so he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “go ahead, might as well give it a try.” Sure enough, it did not take long for Nikolai to find a friendly native. After a few poor pantomime attempts to describe the sailboat and repeatedly pointing to other boats, Nikolai persuaded the Australian gentleman to allow the use of his motorized dinghy.
They searched for Gonta severan hours, but eventually, while checking the northwestern corner of the enormous harbor, Alexei and Nikolai stumbled upon an old sailboat only they could recognize. It was her, no doubt about it. Somehow, their new-found Australian friend did not seem surprised to learn that such an unkempt boat would belong to them, but he smiled politely and even waived good-bye before leaving Nikolai and Alexei on board.
Working together side-by-side day and night, it took Nikolai and Alexei nearly ten days to scrape off the layer of feces, which the seagulls had been dumping on their beloved Gonta for more than a year. During the first week they made acquaintance with a few natives, who helped them get their bearings. Thus, despite Nikolai and Alexei’s pre-historic appearance, in a short while their life in this exotic part of the world became better than anyone could have imagined. Money was not necessary. Neither was knowledge of the English language.
It turned out that Australians living around the harbor could always use an extra pair of “golden hands” that would fix everything from boats to cars to houses. All they had to do was point at the root of the problem, and Nikolai and Alexei would fix it on the spot, in return for food. Or a few beers. And with the salty ocean air eating away at the boats, cars and houses, Nikolai and Alexei had plenty of work to keep them occupied and well-fed. This way, money and language were completely unnecessary to live well in a paradise under the sun called Perth.
In time, some of the natives even became friends. One of the locals who adopted Nikolai and Alexei was father Orest Havrylyshyn, an eccentric old priest. Father Orest came from a long line of proud convicts, and although he was born in Perth, his heart was firmly implanted in Ukraine. Perhaps it was because Ukraine was the country of his great-great-grandfather, Konstantin, the original trouble-maker.
It was on April 27, 1815, while wandering around the London docks, that Konstantin Havrylyshyn stole 17 pounds of bacon from a store in Wapping Hall. He was a hungry seaman in a strange land, who considered himself very lucky to find his much beloved salo, a unique Ukrainian delicacy. So lucky that he did not think twice about taking it. Unfortunately, the shop owner, John Watkinson, caught Konstantin red-handed and called the police.
A trial followed soon, and the court’s unequivocal verdict was “guilty. To deport for 7 years for theft of 17 pounds of bacon worth of 11 shillings.” That is how Konstantin arrived in Perth on the English ship called Ramillies on July 22, 1816, with a cargo of convicts. For several years he was kept behind bars, spending much of that time on bread and water for misbehavior. A rebellious man by nature, he was once sentenced to a flogging of seventy five long and painful lashes.
Konstantin was clearly the first Ukrainian convict in Australia, and Father Orest was very proud of this fact. He was equally proud of being Ukrainian. It was the nation where his roots came from, and no small symbol of that glorious past was forgotten. For example, as his father had taught him before passing into the next world, Father Orest knew how to work the still on his farm. That’s how he produced arguably the finest moonshine in Perth.
And what the locals would derogatorily refer to as “bacon” was lovely salo to Father Orest, with its crust salted just like it was done in Ukraine, the home of his forefathers. Plus, salo was the real reason why Father Orest was born in Perth in the first place.
A sworn enemy of the evil Soviet empire that annexed his beloved Ukraine, in his spare time Father Orest worked for the Australian branch of “Voice of America,” a CIA-sponsored radio program that brought “truth” to the Ukrainian-speakers in Australia, New Zealand and Papua, New Guinea (where cannibalism was recently prohibited but, regrettably, the prohibition was never strictly enforced).
It was largely due to Father Orest’s moonshine and smoky, salty salo that Nikolai and Alexei became so comfortable in their new surroundings. At night, they would all sit in the moonlight on their sailboat, fishing poles baited with freshly caught minnows, toasting each other with Father Orest’s hooch on having found heaven on earth. Life just could not get any better…
A blast from a powerful horn announced arrival of the first fishing boat. Seagulls followed the boat, which meant that there was plenty of fish for Alexei and Nikolai to unload.
“Ready to work for your supper?” Nikolai yawned and stretched, sitting up on his bed.
“Always ready.” Alexei pulled the wool sweater over his head before heading outside. It was a cool, foggy morning. He was hoping the fishing boats would hit a patch of wild salmon again today, like they did a few days ago.
Ever since settling into their new, Australian life, Alexei and Nikolai continued to discover the unexpected benefits of living and working in a harbor marina. One of them was an endless supply of delicious, freshly-caught ocean fish, which the local skippers regularly hauled in. In exchange for a few hours of work Alexei and Nikolai were paid in large barramundi, yellowtail kingfish, snapper, tuna and their all-time favorite, atlantic salmon.
In addition to the daily catch, Alexei and Nikolai took every opportunity to sample exotic crustaceans, including the tropical lobster, the soft-shelled crab, the black tiger, the brown tiger and the kuruma prawns. Their all-time favorite, however, became Australian oysters, courtesy of Edwin Jones, a small, part-time oyster “gardnener.”
Edwin was one of about dozen hobbyists who take their shellfish to neighborhood markets on the weekends. Like the other boutique oyster growers in the region, Edwin was in permanent need of manual labor. In turn, Alexei and Nikolai wanted to taste lots and lots of oysters, so they readily agreed to tend to Edwin’s underwater lots for one week in exchange for his exotic food.
The first day Edwin kept them busy trimming the edges of his oyster shells to cultivate oysters with deeper cups and meatier bodies. In early morning hours they waded waist-deep into the frigid bay waters and pulled trays of oysters onto the shore to check the crop. The biggest ones were picked out and driven to the oyster packing house. There, Edwin set aside some of the bigger adult oysters for sale and motioned for Alexei and Nikolai to carry the rest of lead-heavy bushels to the stainless steel mesh tumbler. The oysters would spin inside, breaking off the crisp, feathery lips of their shells so that they would grow stronger, fuller, deeper cups with better meat. Then Alexei and Nikolai had to re-plant the tumbled oysters in the bay.
The next day they had to move the oysters to another part of the bay. In the process, Alexei and Nikolai understood that oysters are children of their environment. If you grow two oysters in different parts of the same bay, they will taste differently.
If the water is too salty, for instance, the oyster will be salty also. They learned that the perfect balance of flavors depends on the sea grasses, the water temperature, its salinity, the timing of the tides. That is why many oyster farmers, including Edwin, start in one part of the bay and then move several times.
By the end of their week, Alexei and Nikolai were exhausted, but happy. They got exactly what they wanted: four large bushels, filled with top-quality, hand-picked fresh oysters. Then Edwin shook their calloused hands, and drove them back to their marina. As a sign of personal appreciation, he picked up a handful of lemons at a grocery store, squeezing them while pointing at the oysters. On their way back home, Alexei and Nikolai sat inside Edwin’s car, not in the back of some pick-up truck. And waiting for them, on their very own yacht, was a feast of a lifetime: a bucket full of fresh oysters, something nobody in Kiev had ever sampled on such a grand scale.
It was a night neither Nikolai nor Alexei would ever forget. The chilly breeze continued blowing from the northeast. They could hear the waves slapping against Gonta’s sides and the seagulls squawking somewhere above. There they were, on their own yacht, about to feast on a world-class delicacy that was grown in clear blue oceanic bays. Alexei and Nikolai knew that oysters were expensive, eaten only on special occasions, and therefore enjoyed this splurge all the more. In a way, it was an indicator of the overall quality of life for them in Australia.
Of course, Alexei and Nikolai have heard that oysters are usually eaten alive, but neither of them knew quite what to expect since neither of them had eaten a live animal before. The big question was how to open them. The shells were craggy, with razor sharp edges, so Nikolai wisely decided to wear his glove. When opening the first oyster, Nikolai held the little beast securely in one hand while forcing a sharp knife between its shells. With a twist of the handle, the shell snapped open, releasing the tender, succulent meat.
“And now, the lemon,” Nikolai held out his hand, as if he was a priest in a solemn religious procession
“But it’s still alive,” Alexei protested.
“Alright, then, I’ll do it.” Nikolai raised the half-shell to his lips and downed the slippery oyster quickly, not daring to chew it for fear of retaliation. He paused cautiously, but found no immediate cause for alarm. The freshly harvested oyster was spectacular; a little salty, with a slightly metallic flavor. It slid down so quickly that Nikolai did not even have a chance to taste it properly.
“So?” Alexei was impatient. “Do you feel it? What’s it doing inside of you?”
“Nothing, as far as I can tell,” Nikolai replied thoughtfully. “Let’s try another one.” This time, instead of swallowing in disgust, he was chewing slowly, clearly enjoying every single bite. Uncommonly plump and sweet, it had a lovely mineral finish. He simply had to have another. Nikolai raised his glass, filled to the rim with Father Orest’s booze, and then looked over at the mountain of lovely oysters in deeply cupped shells. “To oysters, Alexei!”
A mountain of oysters awaits Alexei and Nikolai
“Aren’t you going to open one up for me?”
“With great pleasure,” Nikolai replied, quickly shucking two more oysters, but his mind was elsewhere. While popping open the second shell, he dreamed up an experimental culinary masterpiece, worthy of praises from the finest Japanese chefs. The experiment was performed
rather quickly: Nikolai casually slid his oyster from the silky lining of its shell into a glass that contained Father Orests’ fiery liquid. Then he squeezed out a healthy portion of lemon juice and admired his creation. “Look, Alexei, here’s a drink that we could surely patent.”
Nikolai prepares a few oyster shooters before the main meal
“Looks promising,” Alexei nodded in approval.
“It’s called ‘an oyster shot,’ and here is how it works.” Nikolai threw the oyster, along with the rest of the moonshine, with down his throat and chewed away.
“This is truly an excellent idea, Nikolai, one of your best. You definitely have to file for a patent.”
“Here, let me fix one for you.”
“With great pleasure,” purred Alexei, tasting his first oyster of the evening. It was fresh-smelling and crunchy, with a slightly nutty flavor. But how on earth could they possibly eat all the oysters they had, he wondered?
Anyone who tasted succulent oysters knows that appetite for these sea creatures grows with each open shell. After a couple of hours, Alexei and Nikolai were able to detect specific characteristics of each animal. Alexei preferred them fat and creamy, while Nikolai liked the sharp brine and seawater aftertaste. By the end of the night, no fewer then fifty two dozen oysters were consumed in just over three hours, raw on the half shell, slurped directly from the shell with a squirt of lemon juice.
It was paradise, no doubt, but with one small caveat: there had to be an easier way for Nikolai and Alexei to get their hands on those magnificent brown mollusks from an ocean bed than toiling on some oyster farm. That’s where Nikolai’s engineering proficiency and common sense produced a highly useful invention: the dredge. It was basically a basket, attached to a toothed bar, which is dragged by a boat over an oyster bed. In theory, the bar would scrape the precious oysters off the sea bottom, where they would get caught in the basket and then hauled aboard.
Nikolai scrounged around several days for the necessary scraps of steel and rusty chains, but eventually he was able to put together a sturdy dredge. The following morning Gonta sailed out of the harbor on her maiden “oyster run.” There was a steady wind from north west, accompanied by chilly, drizzling rain, but otherwise no ominous signs of hurricanes. The plan was to stay close to the shore and scout all the bays, inlets and sheltered estuaries along the south west coast until they found their shellfish bed. Alexei and Nikolai had no clue how many oysters were floating in those cold waters, but they were determined to get as many of them as Gonta would hold.
Eventually, Nikolai and Alexei found themselves in an intertidal zone. Due to the amazing clarity of water, one of Southern Australia’s many unusual features, they were easily able to follow the wide dark spots on the ocean floor. Nikolai dropped off his dredge at about three meters below the water and Gonta slowly eased forward, towing the dredge through the oyster beds, picking up anything in its path.
On the first run Nikolai’s clever invention worked entirely too well, picking up nearly two hundred oysters at once, some of which were obscenely large. Once the basket became unbearably heavy, Alexei and Nikolai had to work hard and fast, straining their backs to pull the catch into the boat. With great difficulty they dumped the whole mass on the floor. Then Alexei sorted through the pile of sea garbage to eliminate dead shells, seaweeds, sponges and other trash, while Nikolai turned Gonta back into the position and dropped the dredge to the bottom. Soon the next load would be coming in. They performed the whole process again and again, until there was no more room for oysters; Gonta was filled to maximum capacity.
Unfortunately, neither Nikolai nor Alexei knew how damaging their new harvesting technique was to the oyster beds, but in all fairness, this information probably would not have made much difference to these men, who were just following their primitive hunting and gathering instincts. Naturally, Alexei and Nikolai were thrilled with their results, and returned triumphantly to their marina for a hearty celebration. After this huge success, whenever the weather permitted, Alexei and Nikolai never missed an opportunity to take Gonta out for another “oyster run.”
Dredging for wild oysters was back-breaking work, involving lots of bending and pulling, working on your knees in the mud and shells. It is certainly not for the weak, but it had its rewards. For one thing, Alexei and Nikolai developed a steady supply of large oysters that would withstand the scrutiny of top French chefs who know their sweet-to-salt oyster ratio. They still did not have any money, and no clue about how to turn their regular catch into a profit-making venture, but a few neighbors would pick up several dozen fat and meaty beauties here and there for potlucks and parties, discreetly leaving behind a few wrinkled bills.
Another time Alexei and Nikolai sold their entire catch to a local oyster grower, who re-sold it at three times the price at the Oyster Fest, organized by the South Australian Oyster Growers Association. All of the customers who stopped by his tent to sample these oysters commented on their quality. Word of mouth spreads quickly in small communities, especially about cheap yet delicious oysters. Soon, money was pouring into their pockets without much effort, allowing Nikolai to stock an impressive collection of local beer and wine. Alexei, being the more cautious of the two, quietly stashed away most of his cash into a rusty tinned can “for a rainy day.” Unexpectedly, for the first time in their lives Alexei and Nikolai had too much money. Life was getting better and better each day.
The main benefit of their oyster runs, however, was the oyster itself, a delicious animal whose two impenetrable, calcified shells surround a delicious, soft body. Oysters breathe using both gills and mantle, which is lined with small, thin-walled blood vessels that extract oxygen from the water and expel carbon dioxide. A small, three-chambered heart lies just under the abductor muscle, pumping colorless blood to all parts of the body. Two tiny kidneys purify the blood of any waste products. And yet consuming a living and breathing organism was not a deterrent to Nikolai and Alexei, who fell hopelessly in love with raw Sydney rock oysters for their naturally complex flavors that range with age.
As a rule, oysters tend to be sweeter when mature and more briny if they are younger. Nikolai’s clever dredging invention allowed them to consume oysters of all ages, old and young alike. Some shells were nicely cupped, with large and silky mollusks. Soft and fleshy, yet crisp, they had buttery or even fruity notes. Others were lean and salty, with a sharp coppery flavor. And all of them had lots of bright brine and a crunchy texture, leaving a rich finish with a clean, mellow aftertaste.
After each oyster run Alexei would patiently sort through their treasure, setting aside small oysters, jokingly dismissing them as “membraneous seawater.” And in a way, he was right, because they did not reach the full sweetness and complexity, but he would always insist that Nikolai shuck them anyway. They would occupy prominent roles in Father Orests’ oyster-shooters. On those nights Alexei and Nikolai felt like unofficial oyster kings of Australia.
They did not know anything about tried-and-true oyster-and-wine pairing, like Chablis, Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre, Muscadet. There was no fancy waiter service, no real silverware. Instead, there were plenty of lemons and fresh-shucked raw oysters in peak meat conditions, served on a half-shell. Unlike some of the better restaurants, these beauties came fresh and cool from South Australia’s oyster beds, arguably the finest oysters on the planet. And drinking oyster shooters instead of French white wine did not diminish their enjoyment of the food nor the setting in any significant way.
* * *
To be continued…