Native oysters from 6 Irish bays were presented for a public tasting Thursday night at the 65th annual Clarinbridge Oyster Festival. No such side-by-side comparative tasting of Irish oysters has been held in recent memory, according to participants.
From south to north, the oysters came from:
1.) Tralee Bay (Kerry)
2.) Galway Bay (Clarinbridge)
3.) Kilkieran Bay (Connemaraa)
4.) Clew Bay (Mayo)
5.) Lough Swilly (Donegal)
6.) Lough Foyle (Donegal-Derry)
European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis) are known as “native oysters” in Ireland — the island’s Atlantic Coast is one of the last places where they are still found. Oysters from the bays along the Irish coast are harvested and replanted in such famous oyster appellations as Belon in France and Colchester in England where they are “finished” before being sold to consumers. Few gourmets realize these oysters originally came from Ireland.
Oyster lovers in Ireland often find it difficult to buy the treasured bivalves locally, which is what made this oyster tasting so unique.
The Clarinbridge Oyster Festival has been overshadowed by the Galway International Oyster Festival since the two split several decades ago. In recent years, more tourists have opted for the larger event up the road which includes the World Oyster Opening Championship. But the new emphasis on providing festival-goers with outstanding culinary experiences should put the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival back on the map of oyster lovers and adventurous food tourists.
A spokesman for the festival explained that when Paddy Burke launched the first Clarinbridge Oyster Festival in 1954, the focus was on the native oysters harvested nearby. The festival promoted Galway Bay oysters and benefited the local farmers who did the harvesting and the seafood dealers who sold Clarinbridge oysters around the world.
But times changed. The oysters weren’t harvested by farmers anymore and few locals were interested in eating them. Slowly, the festival evolved into more of a Clarinbridge social event than an oyster showcase. The tourists lost interest. This year, things have come back into balance. There is still a black tie “Oyster Ball” and a beauty contest to select the “Clarinbridge Pearl,” but there is also a renewed focus on Ireland’s native oysters.
Thursday was billed as “Heritage Night,” the hour-long program started with TV footage from Clarinbridge Oyster Festivals over the years. Several entertaining and informative short films on oysters were shown. Talks included the recital of a Seamus Heaney poem about oysters, interviews with festival founders like Willie Moran (Moran’s Oyster Cottage) and Michael Kelly (Kelly’s Oysters). There was also news from marine biologists and oyster scientists about the efforts to identify and reproduce disease-resistant strains of native oysters.
Paddy Burke’s Oyster Inn supplied a lovely buffet of cooked oysters, mussels, clams and poached salmon. The tasting was the grand finale of the evening.
The Thursday night program was put on by Cuan Beo, a Galway Bay non-profit dedicated to “reconnecting land and sea,” with help from the Oranmore Marine Institute and BIM, the Irish seafood development agency.
Cuan Beo is one of many organizations working together in the international movement to revive the dwindling population of the Ostrea edulis species. While Cuan Beo concentrates on Irish waters, NORA (Native Oyster Restoration Alliance) has spearheaded efforts to rebuild the oyster population in the North Sea.
Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.
We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.
Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege
And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.