Galway oyster olympics sees return of world-class shuckers

Festival marks start of new season for the Galway Bay shellfish

“The rules are that you have 30 oysters that you have to open as fast as possible,” explains festival commercial manager Suzanne Meade. “But it’s not just about time, its about presentation as well: you have to be careful not to cut the meat of the oyster, you have to be careful not to break the shell.” Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

“The rules are that you have 30 oysters that you have to open as fast as possible,” explains festival commercial manager Suzanne Meade. “But it’s not just about time, its about presentation as well: you have to be careful not to cut the meat of the oyster, you have to be careful not to break the shell.” Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Mon, Sep 30, 2013, 10:37

Around the same time as Clare’s Shane O’Donnell was busy cleaving the Cork defence apart in Croke Park, a gathering of world class-oyster shuckers were going hell for leather in Galway.

Each year the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival hosts what the organisers proudly describe as the “Olympics of oyster opening”. Far from being a novelty sideshow, the opening, or “shucking” contest, is the centrepiece of the annual festival, which took place over the weekend.

“The rules are that you have 30 oysters that you have to open as fast as possible,” explains festival commercial manager Suzanne Meade. “But it’s not just about time, its about presentation as well: you have to be careful not to cut the meat of the oyster, you have to be careful not to break the shell.”

‘Very serious’

The competitors come from around the world and they do not take this event lightly. “It’s very serious,” Ms Meade says. “They’ve all won their national contest... this is the Olympics, this is the World Oyster Opening Championships. They’ve all competed in their own country [and] the winning prize for that person from Norway or Japan or Hong Kong or China is to come to Galway to represent their country in the world championships.”

Denmark did the business on Saturday, scooping the top prize in what turned out to be a dramatic year. “It was touch and go there for a while,” says Ms Meade. “Our Norwegian competitor fell earlier in the day while we were taking photos and is after fracturing his ankle. So he was brought in to A&E.”

The official photographs might be perilous but so are the practice runs, where the competitors get to grips with the unique flat shape of the local Galway oysters. “All the openers take practice opening our native oysters, because most of them are used to the rock or the Pacific oyster that they have overseas. One of them, the Northern Ireland competitor, cut his finger quite badly, the Japanese competitor cut his arm.”

The festival celebrates the resumption of oyster season, which runs from September to April. According to local producer Diarmuid Kelly of Kelly’s Oysters, the flat oysters of south Galway Bay are the “crème-de-la-crème”, far superior to the more widely available rock oysters. Henry VIII was said to insist on Galway Bay oysters, and Mr Kelly says demand outweighs supply.

“Business is good,” he says. “There’s a lot more interest in oysters.” That interest has driven strong export growth over the past few years. There are now up to 200 rock oyster farmers along the coast, Mr Kelly reckons, working in an industry that’s worth about €35 million.

Oysters are going through a resurgence of late. Speciality bars and eateries are popping up, along with a coterie of online aficionados and enthusiasts. “They’ve started comparing oysters to wine,” says Mr Kelly, adding that a new lexicon has grown up around the shellfish. “So when you start eating the oyster you get the salty seawater taste at the start, in the middle you have a nice buttery soft texture and then you have a metallic finish.” Once, people would have just said “they were grand or lovely”.

Like scotch drinkers, purists still like their oysters plain. “Everybody enjoys their food differently,” Mr Kelly says diplomatically. “But the real oyster eaters, they enjoy them au naturel, nothing on it, because you have such flavour. You have the flavour of the salt and the mineral flavour on them.”

Whether the participants in the oyster eating contest cared much for the flavour is a moot point. They had to down 15 oysters as quickly as possible (the winner hoovered up his lot in 27 seconds) and were probably too busy shovelling them into their mouths to appreciate the nice buttery middle. As one observer remarked afterwards, “I’m amazed they kept them all down.”