5 minutes with Berny’s Fish & Chips

When we wandered into Berny’s, hungry for fish and chips, we got more than we bargained for. The local oysters charmed our tastebuds with their distinct flavour. Behind the counter, Sharryn charmed us with her energy and down-to-earth humour. And around us, black and white photos had their own story to tell.

Intrigued, we return the next day, ordered a bag of chips and invited Sharryn for a Kombisation. She took us up on the offer right there and then.

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But let’s make one thing clear: Sharryn knows everyone. Berny’s is like the Cheers bar of Batehaven and Sharryn is Sam Malone…read on and you’ll see what we mean.

Sharryn: You’re lucky it’s this week – we shut up for the whole of May for our annual holidays.

OG: Oh lucky you! Where are you going?

Sharryn: We’re off to Bali to laze by the pool and get some sun. It’s funny, we live so close to the sea but still love a proper beach holiday.

OG: So tell us, how long have you been here for?

Sharryn: Well, I’ve been in the area for 29 years. But, and you’ll love this, my husband’s family have been here since the 1880’s.

OG: Is that Berny, of Berny’s Fish and Chips?

Sharryn: That’s the one. He’s Bernard Connell and his family has been oyster famers for 90 years. Actually, it could even be 100 years…I think I’ve been saying “90 years” for ten years now! Anyway, oyster farming has been in the family for four generations now.

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OG: Where do the oysters actually come from – we had some earlier today and they have such a distinct flavour.

Sharryn: They do don’t they? These ones are from Clyde River. It must be something about the river that gives them that creaminess. We start with the oysters when they are the size of a matchstick head and put them in baskets. When they get bigger, we lift the baskets to the surface and transfer them into the next basket. These ones you see here [she points to the $14-per-dozen batch], they take around two years to get that size. Then you get your Pacifics, which take about 14 months.

Sharryn is interrupted by the door, which dings when a guy walks in.

Sharryn: Oh don’t worry about him, that’s David. He works here sometimes. What do you want David?

David asks for 14 oysters and Sharon balks with mock horror.

Sharryn: Fourteen! You’re going to break up a dozen! … So our busiest time of year is Christmas. We do 250 orders on Christmas Eve alone. We have a crazy burst of activity. The winter is pretty quiet, that’s why we close up for a month. I think all the families and kids go to the snow.

OG: Don’t you ever go to the snow?

Sharryn: Oh no, I don’t really like the cold. I suppose it would be nice to sit around a nice fireplace with a hot toddy. But yeah, I prefer the beach.

OG: So where is Berny today, with the oysters?

Sharryn: Nah, he’s out feeding the nags. We have racehorses.

OG: Do you? Do they ever win?

Sharryn: Oh yes, sometimes. Take a look at the pictures over there. That’s the racecourse in 1938, where it used to be here in Catalina. Now they’ve moved it and it’s out at Moruya. That’s where Berny is now with the horses.

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Sharryn turns and pulls the chip basket out of the bubbling fryer. The bell rings again, and a couple walks in. They ask for “two grenadier and minimum chips”.

OG: You’ve been here almost 30 years, has Batemans Bay changed much in that time?

Sharryn: Yes, I suppose. It’s got busier definitely. Though we go through slumps and then it picks up again. Lots of businesses will struggle a bit and they might close down. We’ve been running a fish and chip shop for 25 years. But we’ve only been here at this site for the last seven. We used to have a place down the road near the RSL. It was a fish and chip shop with a restaurant upstairs. Then we sold and I drove cabs for three years.

 OG: That’s funny, we saw Berny’s advertised on a cab earlier today.

Sharryn: I know who you saw, I worked for the owners! When we opened the business here, I asked if we could advertise and he said we could advertise on the windows. So now I give him free fish and chips every time he comes in. They’ve got three sedans, that firm. And they come from Braidwood – a lovely family, the Hockeys. I think one of them played for a big footy team.

OG: Wait, which footy – AFL or rugby?

Sharryn: League. My son-in-law is a mad AFL fan though. He went to the game on ANZAC day. That’s his two big loves – footy and Fords. I’m a Holden girl, myself.

She drains the chips and pours them onto paper.

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Sharryn: Salt?

OG: Yes please

Sharryn: Vinegar?

OG: No thanks. You know, your chips really remind me of the ones I used to have as a kid in England.

Sharryn: That’s why I asked if you’d like vinegar. English people love vinegar on the chips.

Another customer comes in – a man with a backpack and beard. Sharon seems to know him, as she does everyone else, and teases him with some playful banter.

Sharryn: Here, I’ve got some pictures. [She shows us her phone] These are my daughters, they’re twins, about to turn 30. One of my daughters lives up at Queanbeyan, and Tammy lives here with her husband who’s a builder. She got married at Jervis Bay – look at that white sand. And here’s my grandson, he’s just 15 months.

OG: Wow, look at those big blue eyes!

Sharryn: I know, he’ll be chasing them off with a bat. [She turns to the bearded guy with a backpack] I bet you chase them off with a bat too, don’t you? So what are you having tonight?

He orders grenadier and chips.

Sharryn: Here’s one of the sunrise. That was right here – you can see Snapper Island.

The shop gets busier still with more locals and tourists. We want to hang around but feel like if we do, we might be depriving people of their dinner, so it’s time to say our goodbyes.

OG: Before we go, tell us – how do you have your oysters?

Sharryn scrunches up her face.

Sharryn: I don’t like to have too many so I have five or so Kilpatrick and that’s it. Are you going up the coast? I’ll probably pass you tomorrow. I have to go up to Berry to see my spud man. These aren’t going to last me very long [she points to a small stack of chips]. 

We can’t help but agree.

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