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The Galway International Oyster Festival - a joyous celebration of a native aristocrat
by Bridget Haggerty
Co. Galway is very fortunate to have the best oyster beds in Ireland. In the unpolluted waters of Brady Bay and Clarenbridge, the oysters lie waiting to be harvested at the beginning of the oyster season on September 1st.
This aristocrat of the sea is generally about three years old, and has been maturing and fattening - ready for its first - and last - encounter with the locals and tourists. Paired up with homemade brown bread and washed down with pints of Guinness, Galway oysters are a gourmet treat not to be missed - especially during the annual festivals in Clarenbridge and Galway City.
The Galway International Oyster Festival began in 1954. The previous year, the worried manager of the Great Southern Hotel, Brian Collins, was looking at his near empty hotel. How could he extend the tourist season into September? Later that day, while discussing menus with the head chef, it was suggested that oysters should be on the menu as they had just come into season. An idea came into Brian’s head “why not celebrate the opening of the oyster season with a festival?” “In September 1954 we will have an oyster festival!”
True to his word with help from local businessmen and Guinness, the first festival took place the following September with 34 guests attending the first Oyster Festival Banquet and from such humble beginnings grew what is now regarded as one of the most celebrated and longest running festivals in the world. Eeach year, it draws visitors from all over the world and according to the Sunday Times, it's one of “The Twelve Greatest Shows on Earth”. Over 100,000 native oysters will be consumed and in excess of €6.35 million will be spent by Galwegians and visitors to the city and county during four daysof gourmet food, good Guinness and great fun.
Former festival chairperson John Holland oncer said, “You need stamina and a good liver to enjoy all of the events. However for the festival-wise, who know how to pace themselves, it can be done; but, no-where else in the world do you get the unique combination of fun, friendly people, fine food and lively entertainment”.
The annual highlight of the program is the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championship Competitors come from every continent to challenge for the World Title. They are asked to open 30 oysters in the shortest time.
The rules are very strict: Each competitor receives a sealed box of oysters on stage. Before the competition begins, they count their oysters to make sure they have the correct number. For opening and presenting the oysters, they must use only the knife, cloth, board, tray and hand-bell supplied by the Committee. They must also wear the apron provided.
The Festival Compere starts each heat of the competition and all competitors must indicate that they are finished by ringing their hand-bell. Competitors must not touch the tray after ringing their bell or they could be disqualified.
Judges examine the trays of oysters with the following points in mind:
Good appearance, well opened, without flaws, totally severed from shell,
muscle intact - not torn, cut, sliced, wounded, and without blood; orderly and neat appearance. Points are awarded primarily for the speed of opening and judges can also award bonus points for presentation.
Another festival highlight is the selection of the Galway Pearl from a bevy of talented and personable young lassies. The winner presides over all festival activities and becomes the ‘face’ of the Festival for its duration and indeed for the year to come.
At the official opening, musicians and performers will will keep the crowd entertained in Eyre Square until the opening ceremony begins. The newly crowned Pearl will present the season's first oyster to Galway’s Mayor a tradition since 1954. After the ceremony a fun parade will make its way through the streets of Galway to the Oyster Marquee on Nimmo’s Pier .This includes a colourful line-up of musical bands, vintage cars, oyster openers, our Oyster Pearl and visiting dignitaries.
Perhaps one of the most exciting and colorful events is the Oyster Festival Gala Ball. Following the champagne reception and gourmet dinner, there's a Parade of Flags and then each of the oyster openers is brought back, accompanied by popular music from their own native land. Afterwards, the throng enjoys the famous Saturday Night Cabaret and dancing until the wee hours.
As with all traditional Irish celebrations, this one concludes with a Farewell Party under the Marquee at Nimmos Pier in the Claddagh. Festival-goers can dance the afternoon away, enjoy the non-stop entertainment and continue indulging their appetite for native Galway oysters.
So what makes this particular "ostea edulis" so special? The area where they come from has just the right combination of fresh water and salt water, plus sufficient plankton to create both plumpness and flavor. Long ago, there was an abundance of these oysters and they were a readily available source of free food during the Great Famine. The Romans also had a great love for the edulis oyster. So much so, they used to pay for them by their weight in gold. Today, native oysters are considered to be a great luxury due to being a relatively scarce species. In season from September to April when there is an 'R' in the month, the best way to enjoy the full flavour is to eat them raw, served on the deep shell to hold their succulent juices. Fresh lemon juice or a drop of Tabasco sauce are often used as accompaniments.
Is it true that oysters are an aphrodisiac? Well, they've long been linked with love. When Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell and promptly gave birth to Eros, the word "aphrodisiac" was born. The dashing lover Casanova also used to start a meal eating 12 dozen oysters. And in the USA, we say "Eat oysters, love longer." Deserved or not, the oyster has maintained a timeless mystique when it comes to passion. The oyster's own love life is an interesting one, reproducing during the summer months and changing sex every time it does. A single oyster can incubate up to one million larvae and may do so more than once a year. Just as well, if ostea edulis is to continue providing the main course for future Galway oyster festivals!
For more information on this year's festival please click Galway Oyster Festival.
Content & Images
Kelly Oysters Company.
Note: Kelly Galway Oysters are reputedly the best you can buy and they are the official supplier for both the Galway International Oyster Festival and the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival. If you're lucky enough to live in Ireland or Great Britain, you can order Kelly Oysters on line.
Another Note: If this started your appetite for Oysters (as it should), click to our collection of Oyster Recipes
Any purchase made helps to support our site (and let Bridget have oysters occasionally, Russ doesn't like them). Thank you.
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March 4, 2011