SPEED AND QUALITY
Every year, a worldwide net is tossed to find the best oyster shuckers on the planet. Contests are held at various oyster festivals in countries around the world. Then the winners compete against each other. The most famous shucking contest occurs at the Galway Oyster Festival, in Ireland. It crowns the annual "World Champion." Only one person from each participating country competes. The U.S. entry each year is selected at the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival, (Maryland) held in October. Until recently, you and I have had to travel to Galway in September to witness world championship shucking live.
In recent years, other world class shucking events have been born in Europe. Twelve years ago, the European Oyster Shucking competition was founded in Sweden. More recently, the Oyster Opening World Cup was created. Last year it was held in Denmark. Next year it will be held in Gothenburg, Sweden. But this year, it took place in Montreal. Why Montreal? Because a Canadian shucking champion named Daniel Notkin participated in the Copenhagen event and invited the whole competition to take place at the Montreal Oyster Festival, a festival that he originated and runs. Thank you Daniel!
Additional championship events have encouraged world class shuckers to improve the speed and quality of their shucking. Beyond the prizes and prestige, they get to visit other countries and see the world. They share tips on shucking knives and shucking techniques. An unexpected byproduct has been friendship with their counterparts in other countries.
The more enterprising champions have turned their shucking success into related business opportunities. Canadians Patrick McMurray and Daniel Notkin have founded their own restaurants - Patrick in Toronto (2), Daniel in Montreal. William "Chopper" Young owns his own oyster farm in Wellfleet. Patrick has also written a book about oysters and invented his own oyster shucking knife. French champion Xavier Caille has helped to design his own shucking knife. Patrick and Xavier are posing with their knives in the slide show top right. Both Irish champions Michael Moran and Michael Kelly are preserving long family traditions in oyster farming. Speaking of family ties, Canadian champion Eamon Clark is the son of Rodney Clark - the man who owns Rodney's Oyster House in Toronto.
WHY DO WE CARE?
The people who enter shucking contests are not the only beneficiaries of them. In order to judge a shucking contest, standards of quality have to be established and met. The standards are designed to emulate the actual conditions in a restaurant. Speed is an issue when serving oysters but not at the expense of quality.
Stopwatches are used for timing the efforts of each competitor. Then a panel of judges assesses the quality of the shucking and penalizes contestants by adding seconds (points) to the actual time taken to shuck. The rules invented for the Galway event have served as a model for many festivals in other countries.
The key penalties are:
a) An oyster not severed from its shell +4 points.
b) An oyster with blood + 30 points
c) An oyster with shell or grit on its flesh + 4 points.
d) An oyster, the flesh of which is cut or sliced + 4 points.
e) An oyster not presented upright + 4 points.
f) For each oyster not opened or presented + 30 points.
The contest rules in Wellfleet, MA also penalize the shucker for an oyster presented on broken shell - to avoid sharp edges.
Even if you shuck your own oysters at home, these rules provide a good outline for your shucking efforts. While speed at home is rarely an issue, quality adds to the pleasure of any dining experience. The shell is a miniature plate and should be kept clean and tidy. We eat with our eyes.
As those who witnessed the shucking contest in Montreal can attest (see video above) the other benefit of it is the excitement that accompanies watching any sport. For an oyster festival, the shucking contest can be the focal event. It is a focus on excellence. The results of the contest in Montreal this year were:
1 Eamon Clark, Canada 2 Julius Chapple, Canada 3 William Young, USA 4 Fredrik Lindfors, UK 5 Jesper Knutsen. Denmark 6 Michael Kelly, Ireland 7 Jonas Tønsager, Denmark 8 Johann Schlag Finland 9 Michael Moran Ireland 10 Xavier Caille France.
Montreal attracted a collection of champion shuckers from Europe and North America (see slide show above). For many European shuckers, it was the first time they had shucked a C. virginica oyster. The photos also illustrate the wide variety of shucking knives they use.
The criteria for successful shucking, illustrated above, are generated from restaurant service conventions. Also shown is "lid shucking" and dehydrated oysters. Lid shucking is sometimes permitted and sometimes not. Dehydrated oysters are to be avoided by shuckers by knocking (hollow) shells together or simply avoiding lightweight oysters. Shuckers do this prior to the contest.
Acknowledgments: OI would like to express its appreciation to Christina Stenberg for the use of her photos and assistance in researching this article. For 12 years Christina was a CEO in Sweden responsible for marine issues. She was co-initiator/co-founder , with Per Olofsson, of the European Oyster Opening Competition in 2004. She currently serves as a co-organizer and judge of both the Swedish Oyster Opening Competition and the Oyster Opening World Cup. Thank you Christina!
Note: Current information about champion shuckers can be found at:
European Champions: http://oysteropeningworldcup.com/results/
US Champions: http://usoysterfest.com/page/shucking-champions