If you drive 1,200 kilometers south of Santiago, you will arrive at the small port of Calbuco, where families of tenacious small-scale fishermen still populate a large archipelago. About an hour after leaving the port in a small wooden boat you reach the island of Chidhuapi.
The landscape of the island’s 114 hectares is reminiscent of that of Scotland: woodland, emerald-green pastures, sheep, wooden houses looking out to sea, a church, a small school, a cemetery and little else. It is a beautiful spot, without hotels, restaurants, shops, electricity or telephones. On Chidhuapi, rare days of sunshine are squeezed between periods of rain and freezing wind. Here, the tradition of catching wild oysters has been passed down for at least four generations.
During the twice-daily low tides, the water in the island’s bays retreats as far as 300 meters, leaving the oyster beds uncovered. The fishermen go out at low tide, select the largest oysters and bring them near the shore. Here, there are simple stone enclosures for holding oysters selected for sale. The enclosures are marked off by nets fitted with white buoys, which allow divers to gather the oysters at high tide. Calbuco Black-Bordered Oysters are smaller than those found in other parts of the world – where they are cultivated in clusters suspended in the water – but offer better taste and texture and can easily be distinguished by their distinctive black fringe when opened.
The technique of gathering wild oysters on Chidhuapi is disappearing: the number of gatherers can be counted on one hand. This ancient system respects the natural cycle of oyster beds by limiting harvest to just six months of the year, in autumn and winter, when oysters do not reproduce, and selecting the largest specimens which are at least three years old.
Photos — Archives Slow Food