Through a crack in the charcoal clouds over Galway, the sun pours down on the steps of the Meyrick Hotel. All eyes are on Mayor Hildegarde Naughton as an expectant crowd gathers round. A hush descends as she lifts to her mouth a native oyster, fresh from the pristine waters of Galway Bay on Ireland’s west coast. The shell goes up, the oyster slips down, and she gets a round of applause - not to mention a splash of salty oyster juice on her golden chain of office.
All spillages aside, the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival is officially open. A rowdy parade of costumed kids, vintage cars, stilt-walkers and flag-bearing oyster shuckers from all over the world are followed through the streets by a bellowing brass band. The destination is a giant marquee at the harbour - Galway’s gateway to the sea. And the focus for everybody’s attention? A little bivalve mollusc that’s only in season when there’s an ‘r‘ in the month.
The festival began in 1954 as a humble attempt to boost tourism. In a bid to extend the summer season into the month of September, Southern Hotel manager Brian Collins decided to celebrate the native oysters of Galway with a festival. The event got progressively bigger and better, with cooking demonstrations, restaurant promotions, contests and a gala ball. At the turn of the millennium, The Sunday Times named it one of the ‘12 greatest shows on earth’. Now in its 57th year, it’s one of the longest running food festivals in the world. As well as one heck of a party.
No sooner has the procession streamed through the marquee gates, than a band is whipping up a traditional Irish jig, and the Guinness is flowing as freely as Galway’s boisterous River Corrib. The dancing has already begun, with several revellers enjoying what’s known around these parts as ‘the craic’. All this, over a sea creature no bigger than the palm of your hand.
So what is so special about the native oysters of Galway bay? How do they taste? And why do they deserve a huge festival in their honour?
To find out, I head over to the stall run by Michael Kelly’s Shellfish, official suppliers of Galway Bay oysters to the festival since the 1950s. There I order half a dozen native oysters with a wedge of fresh lemon and a few chunks of buttered brown bread. I add a pint of Guinness to the ensemble and begin slurping it all down.
The oysters are plump, pinkish-brown and marbled against the smooth pearly whiteness of the shell. Each one is a super-saline burst of ocean freshness; silky, sweet and sensuous. A pure expression of the ocean. But for the man next to me - a 38-year old Galwegian, just about to eat his first ever oyster - the experience isn’t quite so profound. «It’s just a load of old slime,» he says with an Irish twang.
«There’s a lot of people out there who have never had one,» says oyster farmer and supplier Diarmuid Kelly with a shrug. «That’s the thing with oysters, people either love them or they hate them. It’s a mental thing. It’s the coldness or texture of them, they’re just not used to it.»
If you’re an oyster virgin, it would appear that au naturel is the way to go. «If you haven’t eaten one before, eat it on its own, freshly opened,» says Kelly. «If you start with a nice small oyster, with plenty of freshness and salt water, you get the flavour of it, swirl it around... But you can also put tabasco on it, a nice shallot red wine vinaigrette, or a ginger and sweet chilli sauce. If you eat a lot of oysters, it’s nice to have a bit of variety.»
And what about drink pairings - or is that a silly question in Galway? «Traditionally it was the black stuff,» says Kelly with a chuckle, referring to the ubiquitous Irish brew, Guinness. «You had to have your pint of porter and wash it down with that. And your brown bread. If you sit down in a restaurant and you have your dozen oysters and few slices of brown bread, with a pint of Guinness, you have a meal. You’re full of iron then.»
Along with his brother Michael, Diarmuid runs the family business that was set up by his father over 50 years ago. Today, Kelly’s oysters are used in top restaurants all over Europe, and have been feted by such respected TV chefs as Rick Stein and Delia Smith as being among the tastiest oysters in the world.
Native Irish oysters are more rounded in shape yet much flatter than the Pacific or rock oyster. Thriving in the clean waters off the west coast of Ireland, they start to come in season every September, and are available up until the end of April. «The oysters from Galway are a flat oyster, they are what we call the ostrea edulis so they’re different to the normal Pacific oyster,» says Kelly.
The environmental conditions in which oysters grow are crucial to quality. «We’re situated in the inner Galway bay, so we have the Burren mountains to the south, Connemara to the north, and the minerals from those mountains mix in with the fresh water from the bay,» says Kelly. «They’re full of flavour, minerals, vitamins and iron, and you get that when you taste them. When you bite into them you get the iodine and metallic taste. It’s like with wine and terroir. It’s the same thing with oysters.»
The combination of fresh water and seawater is essential for the unique flavour of native oysters. They can filter up to eleven litres of water an hour, and they only become ready for eating when they’re four or five years old. The continuous filtering of mineral-rich seawater gives the native Irish oysters of Galway Bay a rich, bold and full flavour.
As such, they’re rich in nutrients. But are the claims true that oysters are good for keeping one’s energy levels up? «Well, they’re full of zinc,» says Kelly with a glint in his eye. «So it’ll keep you going through the night as well as the day.»
Since the party shows little sign of abating, I’m quite inclined to believe him.