In two years time, the Irish city of Galway will be at the centre of the European Year of Gastronomy. So beat the inevitable crowds and head west this September for the Oyster and Seafood Festival. It’s been running for 62 years. Why weren’t we told?
“It’s possibly the longest running festival in Ireland,” one of the organisers, Maria Monaghan Lee, told me in a very matter-of-fact way, which made me feel ashamed at my lack of knowledge. The shellfish found in the waters around Ireland’s most westerly city are highly prized delicacies and they’re different to the more common Pacific oysters. “They are flatter and are a premium food,” says Maria.
Most places seem to host major festivals in summertime, so why does Galway host this festival in September?
“You know they say that you should only eat oysters in a month with the letter R in it?” asks Maria. “Yes” I replied. I did know that, but I’m not sure she’s buying it. “It’s not because they are dangerous – it’s because they are in season,” Maria explains. “And we celebrate that with the World Oyster Opening Championship at the event.” Entrants have to prise open thirty shells as fast as they can whilst offering the best quality standard of presentation. “It is a mix of speed and accuracy,” says Maria. It’s also quite a lot of oyster eating! “You should see the amount of bags,” she says.
“Is it ok if you don’t like raw oysters?” I asked Maria gingerly. “It’s okay if you don’t like them at all!” she replies. “This is a foodie city and we try to reflect that in the festival.” There’s an oyster trail touring the restaurants of the city and testing how they prepare the seafood. There are also trips to see the oyster beds and the event opens with a massive parade of music and dancing.
This year’s event runs over the weekend from the 23rd to 25th September. The Saturday will be the busiest day with the main competition and Mardi Gras events. “Sunday is what we call a recovery day,” laughs Maria. “It’s a family day with plenty of cookery demonstrations. We’ve always managed to get two Michelin starred chefs to come and maybe we’ll have three this year,” she teases. Accommodation is still available at this late stage, “but you will need to be creative and use services like airBnB,” says Maria.
From the UK you can fly to Shannon, Dublin or Knock airport. The road links are excellent. “It’s two hours by motorway from Dublin and there is a very frequent and high standard bus service linking the cities. Also it’s easy to hire a car and drive from the airports,” says Maria.
There’s more information at the Galway Oyster Festival website.
You can listen to my conversation with Maria here: