It's Oyster Season: Galway Oyster Festival

The Galway Oyster Festival, held on the last weekend in September every year, celebrates the beginning of oyster season.

The festival is held when the months without an "R" are behind us and the summer spawning is over. In the cold waters of Ireland, the oysters are beginning to fatten up already. I ate this lovely specimen at the Galway market on the morning before the festival opened.

A small but very charming parade down Shop Street marks the opening of the festival. The parade leads the celebrants down to the Festival Marquee--an enormous tent on the docks of the Galway waterfront.

The Galway Oyster Festival was founded in 1954--it started out as a small gathering of oyster lovers at Paddy Burke's Pub in Clarinbridge. The festival was moved to downtown Galway in the 1980s. Paddy Burke's still holds their own Clarinbridge Oyster Festival on the first weekend of October.

Since 1968, the main event of the festival has been the World Oyster Opening Competition. Only one National Champion from each country is invited.

Speed is only one aspect of the competition--presentation is also taken into consideration. Each contestant is given 32 European Ostrea edulis oysters and must present 30 of them. The judges spend over an hour grading the platters of oysters.

The oysters aren't as big and fat as they will be by Christmas, they taste pretty damn good already.

This year's American Champion was a nice kid from Panama City, Florida named Honor Allen. He was repeating as the American Champion. Last year for Honor's first time World competition, he had never seen a European (edulis) oyster before and he shucked with an American-style shucking knife. He still managed to come in 13th.

The other contestants took Honor under their wings and helped him find the sort of two-bladed shucking knife that all the Europeans use. This year with his new knife, Honor came in 5th. Hope to see him next year!

This year's winner was Anti Lepik from Estonia, who has now won the Oyster Opening crown 3 years in a row.

Are oysters the best thing about winter? Well, I guess there's Christmas.