Of the many good things September brings, one of the most exciting is the new native oyster season. Very much associated with the west of Ireland, especially Galway, its arrival is celebrated every year by the Galway International Oyster Festival – the 55th festival (www.galwayoysterfest.com), takes place over 24-27th September 2009. The most eagerly anticipated (and hotly contested) competition is always the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championship, in which contestants race to open 30 oysters and present them correctly. The fastest Irish entry in 2008 (not for the first time), was Michael Moran of Morans on the Weir (aka Morans Oyster Cottage) at Kilcolgan, where they also have their own oyster beds – and Gerry Cahill of Morans Oyster Fisheries was placed 7th.
Although they may once have been so plentiful that they were the everyday food of the ordinary people, oysters have long been associated with luxury (decadence, even!) and Irish oysters are very highly regarded internationally. Indeed, some of the most famous restaurants in Europe feature oysters from both Galway (native) and Carlingford (gigas) on their menus – at The Seafood Restaurant, Rick Stein’s iconic fish restaurant in Padstow, for example, they sit easily alongside those from the River Fal in Cornwall, which are famously harvested only under sail, providing a unique and foolproof conservation measure. (Wouldn’t it be a good idea to adopt a similar scheme here for harvesting turf – if cut only by hand, the damage would automatically be minimal.)
Of the two species of oyster grown in Ireland, the flat native Irish oyster (Ostrea edulis) grows naturally on tidal sea beds and is also cultivated in managed plots. About 35 years ago, due to a decline in native stocks, Gigas (Crassostrea gigas), the oval frilly-shelled Pacific oyster, was introduced and is now the main species in Ireland - cultivated by about 200 enterprises in 11 coastal counties. Like mussels, oysters are not fed by the growers but take their nourishment naturally from the sea in exactly the same way as wild oysters – a lengthy process that depends on the highest water quality for its success, and takes a lot of care and patience on the part of growers. Unlike the native Irish oyster, Gigas are available all year – but, like their smaller wild cousins, they are best in the colder months.
This recipe from Kevin Dundon of Dunbrody Country House Hotel and Cookery School, County Wexford, is typical of the kind of dish you might expect at the Harvest Room Restaurant, or the informal Dunbrody Seafood Bar & Terrace – and it’s a great way to introduce oysters to your guests.
Don’t be put off by the thought of opening the oysters; an oyster knife - a sturdy knife with a short blade - is a good investment if you like oysters and are likely to serve regularly.
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Oysters Bloody Mary
Bloody Mary is a classic accompaniment for oysters, so Aidan MacManus of The King Sitric Fish Restaurant in Howth, Co Dublin, uses the idea for a sauce. He uses native west coast oysters for this dish whenever possible, although rock oysters (Gigas) - which are farmed not far away in Carlingford Lough - can be used instead.
When using rock oysters, select them as small as possible.
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