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Oyster shuckers gather to compete and crown their champion

Galway International Oyster Festival in Ireland attracts an international cast with sharp knives and a sense of fun.

October 14, 2009|Necee Regis

GALWAY, IRELAND — Out on the flats of Galway Bay, late September's ashen clouds hang low over the gunmetal sea. Faded gray seaweed cushions the muddy, rock-strewn shore where the wind is brisk and scented with salt.

Standing in an inch of muck, a bunch of oyster shuckers are talking about knives. Not just any old knives or any old shuckers. The knife-wielding guys assembled this afternoon are the creme de la creme of competitors in the oyster-shucking universe. They're here for the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championship, the centerpiece of the three-day party, now in its 55th year, known as the Galway International Oyster Festival.

The Europeans call it oyster opening. Americans call it shucking. Either way, winning in Galway is like snagging gold at the Olympics, and these participants, from 14 countries, are ready for battle.

The American competitor, William "Chopper" Young, knows a lot about knives. And oysters. A shell fisherman in Wellfleet, Mass., home to the famed Wellfleet oyster, Young is a two-time American champ who's returning to defend his 2008 Galway title, where he was the first American to win in 32 years.

There are several ways to open an oyster, and in shucking parlance Young is a "hacker," meaning he opens the shell from the side. His knife of preference is a modified Japanese blade inserted in a Dexter Russell handle. Last year, Young discovered that European Flats -- with their layered feathery edges -- cracked with his method. With less than 24 hours until the competition, Young borrowed a more rigid knife and became a "stabber," one who enters the oyster at the hinge. He won anyway.

"You have to be one with the oyster," Young said. "It's you and 30 oysters. It's the luck of the draw. They say they pick the best ones for the contest but you can never tell. One can crumble. It's oyster shucking."

The rules of competitive shucking leave little room for error. Each competitor is given 30 oysters (24 in the U.S. nationals) and has several minutes to arrange them on a tray and examine them for flaws. (A defective oyster can, with the judges' approval, be traded for a new one.) Each competitor has his own timekeeper. When you finish shucking, you raise your arms and ring a bell.

Speed isn't the only asset needed to win. Results are determined by time and presentation, and the best competitors strategize to balance speed with perfectionism. Penalties include four seconds added for each of the following no-no's: oysters with grit or damage to the shell; cut, sliced or wounded muscles; and oysters not severed from their shells or not presented upright. The worst penalty, for unopened or missing oysters, or a spot of blood, adds a steep 30 seconds to the score.

Most of these men -- they're all men this year, though Deborah Pratt of Virginia won the American nationals three times and took second place in Galway in 1997 -- are employed in the food industry as chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, restaurateurs, fishermen and oyster farmers.

To qualify, each has competed in local and regional competitions in his home country and subsequently won a national title. Some competitions, those hosted by commercial venues, offer substantial prize money -- up to $2,000 for the top spot. Other events, like here where the prizewinner takes home a Waterford crystal trophy and a few hundred euros, are all about the glory.

Tools of the trade

Back out on the flats of Galway Bay, talk quickly turns to the finer points of technique. That's when the knives appear. Anti Lepik, from Estonia, wears a thick cloth glove on his left hand, with the tip of the index finger cut off. He shows two knives with handles wrapped in putty-colored tape with curved blades that mimic an oyster's edge. One of the knives has a second, narrower blade at the opposite end, used to sever the adductor muscle from the shell without damaging the meat.

Heini Petersen of Norway, ranked first in the world and attending his fourth consecutive Galway competition, has three of these dual blade knives. Wearing a black cloth glove with leather reinforcements on the index and middle finger tips, he demonstrates his technique, deftly wielding his knife to pop open the succulent bivalve.

"What you're looking for is a shell without too many little holes," Petersen said. "A shell like that will crush when you open it."

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