Sláinte: Oysters Galore


Opening an oyster can be a daunting task. Those little critters clamp their shells shut tight as a bank vault and don’t take kindly to being pried open with a sharp blade. Not only that, but wielding an oyster knife is an easy way to slice off a thumb, that most useful of our twenty digits!

Given that shucking an oyster is one of the more dangerous culinary arts, now imagine opening 30 of the pesky bivalves in only 2 minutes and 28 seconds. That was the winning time at the 2010 Galway Oyster Festival World Oyster Opening Championship!

Deemed one of Europe’s longest-running food extravaganzas, the Galway Oyster Festival was launched in September 1954 by the manager of the Great Southern Hotel. The tourist season had ended and room sales were looking dismal, but the executive chef had a brainstorm. Since oysters had just come into season, he suggested adding them to the menu. That year 34 guests attended the first Oyster Festival Banquet and feasted on several dozen oysters each. These days, the event is one of the biggest on Ireland’s social calendar, drawing more than 10,000 visitors who gleefully down tons of the briny beauties.

Though Jonathan Swift is believed to have said, “He was a brave man who first dared eat oysters,” the quote predates the Dublin satarist by about one hundred years, and was most likely uttered by James I of England (1566-1625) at a 16th century royal banquet. But the Irish had discovered the pleasure of eating oysters long before His Majesty ever slurped one of the succulent mollusks.

About 8,000 years before, in fact. Ireland’s Mesolithic people knew all about edible plants and roots, fruits, nuts and berries, and the seasonal movement of wild animals and fish. Evidence of their diet lies on the shores of Sligo County where archaeological digs have unearthed blackened hearths with charred deer bones as well as huge waste heaps known as kitchen-middens that contain tons of cockle, mussel and oyster shells.

These prehistoric hunter-gatherers made camp along the many bays and inlets of Ireland’s coastline. They used long bone or wooden harpoons with tiny flint points to catch fish. They trapped sea birds and collected eggs from the nests. And they gathered the abundant harvest of shellfish, mollusks and seaweeds found just off shore.

Seafood has always been a key ingredient in the Irish diet. The pre-Christian Brehon Laws recognized fishermen’s status via the mur breatha (sea decisions) which safeguarded each clan’s right to fish in their own territories. Stories of the saints’ lives emphasized the importance of seafood, especially for coastal and island dwellers. In one tale, Saint Molua had cooked a fatted calf for Saint Maedoc, but was mortified when he discovered that his guest’s vows prevented him from eating meat. It was only a momentary problem. In the wink of an eye, Molua miraculously transformed the offending flesh into seafood. 

In 1788, a priest in the Rosses, County Donegal, wrote: “Their shellfish they got in the following manner; the men went to the rocks with a hook tied to the end of a strong rod; and with that they pulled from under the rocks, as many crabs and lobsters as they wanted. For scollops and oysters, when the tide was out, the younger women waded into the sea where they knew the beds of such fish lay; some of them naked whilst some of them went in with their gowns tucked up about their waist; and by armfuls, brought to shore whatever number of scollops and oysters they thought requisite.”

Ireland’s native oyster, the flat-shelled Ostrea edulis, has always been abundant along the island’s western coast where there are immense natural feeding and breeding beds. In the 1840’s Clew Bay, County Mayo, contained such vast quantities of oysters that they were simply dredged from the sea with ropes. But the major oyster center is Galway where the tasty little morsels form such a vital part of the economy that every September the Galway Oyster Festival heralds the beginning of oyster season.  

During the 16th century people started eating oysters only in months containing the letter “R,” believing that oysters were unwholesome during late spring and summer. Two elements combined to establish the custom. During spawning months, oysters take in more water becoming soft and fatty. This causes them to lose a good bit of flavor, lending credence to the thought that they are not fit for eating. An even more serious reason for not eating oysters during summer four centuries ago was that refrigeration was unknown, transportation of goods was deplorably slow, oysters spoiled quickly in hot weather and eating spoiled oysters was a guaranteed way to bring on a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Today, summer harvesting of native Irish oysters is illegal for conservation reasons.
Ireland’s pristine seas are a perfect environment for oyster farming, and the Pacific Gigas oyster with its frilly pear-shaped shell is cultivated with great success at numerous oyster farms. The largest and best known is Cuan Sea Fisheries in Whiterock Bay, County Down, which supplies quality oysters to home and overseas markets. Since this “cupped” oyster does not experience a breeding season in cold waters, oysters are now enjoyed in Ireland year round.