Edythe Preet explores the history of Ireland’s favorite bivalve, from Mesolithic times to today’s Galways Oyster Festival.
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.
When Shakespeare wrote “the world’s mine oyster” (The Merry Wives of Windsor), he was alluding to the fact that, as oysters produce priceless pearls, the world is a place from which to extract wealth. Though it’s possible you may find a pearl in your oyster one day, the real riches to be gained from the luscious mollusks lie in their nutritional value.
Oysters contain a potent cocktail of rare vitamins and minerals and are claimed to relieve many serious health problems. They are high in calcium, niacin and iron, as well as being a good source of protein. Omega 3, a fatty acid present in oysters, lowers cholesterol levels. The amino acid Taurine helps lower blood pressure and eases both arthritis and liver complaints. Oysters contain more phosphorous (“brain food”) than any other foodstuff, and they are high in zinc, which is essential for healthy skin, a strong immune system, mental stability and sexual potency.
The cooking rule for oysters is: hardly cook them at all. The most popular way of eating oysters is to consume them raw on the half-shell just as they were eaten in Mesolithic times. The only change is the addition of taste-enhancing condiments such as a squeeze of lemon, a dash of cayenne pepper, a sprinkle of freshly grated horseradish, and the nearly obligatory accompanying pints of Guinness.
Though the American poet Ogden Nash wrote: “I’d like to be an oyster, say, in August, June, July or May,” I’ll continue my dad’s tradition of preparing the first fall oyster stew. As we waited expectantly at table, he warmed the milk until it just began to sizzle. Then he slipped freshly shelled oysters with their salty sweet nectar into the pot, gently stirred them until their edges curled, and added a big chunk of butter. As the golden droplets began to spread across the surface, he ladled the stew into our warmed bowls, passed them round and we dipped our spoons into one of Ireland’s oldest and finest autumn taste treats. May you be so blessed in your home.
Live oysters are best as fresh as possible and should be purchased from a store with good turnover. Reject those that do not have tightly closed shells or that don’t snap shut when tapped. The smaller the oyster is (for its species), the younger and more tender it will be. Fresh shucked oysters are also available and should be plump, uniform in size, have good color, smell fresh and be packaged in clear, not cloudy, oyster liquor. Live oysters should be covered with a damp towel and refrigerated with the larger shell down for a maximum of three days. The sooner they’re used, the better they’ll taste.
24 shucked oysters
1 egg, beaten
1⁄4 cup milk
salt & pepper
1 cup fine bread crumbs
oil for cooking
4 French rolls
Place the oysters in a pot of boiling water and cook for three minutes. Remove, drain and dry the oysters. Beat the egg with the milk and season with salt and pepper. Dip each oyster into the egg mixture and roll in the bread crumbs. Heat fat to frying temperature in a skillet. Fry each oyster for a few minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper. Serve on split and toasted crusty rolls. Makes 4 servings.
(Irish Country Recipes – Ann & Sarah Gomar)
Mrs. Murphy’s Brown Bread
Oysters go great with Irish brown bread and butter. Here’s a simple, fail-proof recipe that Irish America’s editor uses, compliments of her sister-in-law Rita’s mother.
3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wheat bran
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 cup of sugar
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
pinch of salt
1 egg slightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk
Sprinkle of flax seeds (optional)
In a bowl, mix all-purpose flour, sugar, wheat bran, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir in oil and egg. Add buttermilk (if mixture gets too moist add more bran, or too dry add more buttermilk) until dough holds together; it should not be sticky. Turn dough onto a lightly floured board and knead gently 5 times to make a ball. Set on a lightly greased baking sheet or cast iron pan. Pat into a 7-inch circle. With a floured knife, cut a large X on top of loaf. Bake in a 375° oven until well browned, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm or cool.