The Galway International Festival isn’t just a celebration: it’s a competition too. Each year, some of the world’s most skilled oyster shuckers gather to compete in the World Oyster Opening Championships
Martin Söderstrom is Finland’s representative. A buyer for a fish company, he’s been opening oysters competitively for three years, and is the third fastest oyster opener in Finland. «The reigning champion and number two couldn’t come, so they sent me,» he says with a grin.
«In the build-up to the championship, I’ve opened a couple of hundred oysters a week. The main skill is to be fast, but you have to be clean,» says Söderstrom. For the judges, presentation is everything. They can add penalty seconds to a shucker’s time, especially if the shell hasn’t been opened cleanly, or if the oyster hasn’t been loosened properly. «And if there is blood in the oyster, it’s usually from you,» says Söderstrom. «That’s 30 seconds for every one with blood in it.»
It’s just as well that Söderstrom has brought his protective gloves with him. Also in his kit bag are a number of short, stubby oyster knives and a sharpening steel. «I want the edge of the knife to be sharp,» he says, «especially because the oysters are quite hard to open here at the moment.»
Although it’s Söderstrom’s first time in Galway he’s quietly confident. But he’s under no illusion as to the quality of the competition. «Ireland’s Michael Moran is really good,» he says. «Hasse Johannesson from Sweden is real fast. In the Swedish Championships he opened 15 oysters in 45 seconds. Three seconds per oyster. That’s really, really fast.»
Alongside Söderstrom, Johannesson and Moran, there are competitors from Canada, England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, USA, Singapore... but it’s a Belgian that sweeps all before him, and claims the world title for a second time.
Tall, slim and with hair as silver as a shucker’s flashing blade, Xavier Caille (in the picture) is delighted with his win. «The Galway oyster festival is such a unique moment for the shucker,» he says, his elegant trophy cradled in his arms. «It is the best oyster festival in the world. You move everywhere - Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand - but this is the one.»
So what does it take to out-shuck some of the best oyster openers in the world? «Practice and patience,» reveals the champion. «I’ve been opening oysters for, ooh, 25 or 28 years. This is my passion.»