Oysters of Ireland: Journey (Part 3 of 3)
When you eat an oyster, you’re experiencing a place. But that doesn’t mean you have to take the oyster’s word for it!
You can go see for yourself—and you’ll probably be glad that you did. It will give a whole new meaning to “the world is your oyster.”
If you're asking yourself why would want to travel for oysters? Well, here are some reasons:
Great scenery: oysters grow in some of the most pristine and beautiful environments in the world.
Great company: no one is as knowledgeable about oysters as oyster growers themselves.
Great taste: the best tasting oysters are when they are at their freshest -- pluck one out of the water and see!
Ok, but why oysters of Ireland? If you're based in the US like me, you have to travel to experience the Irish oyster. You can't find many international oysters in the country, with exceptions to Canada, New Zealand, and occasionally Chile. A quicker bivalve-gastronomic trip might be to Toronto, where shucking legend Patrick McMurray brings in precious Kelly Galways for a few months during the year. But if you're a wanderlust, definitely go for the whole shebang.
Ireland is as beautiful as it is diverse. From County Clare to Galway to Dublin, we got to experience the gorgeous coastline of west coast, the interior countryside, and the bustling city. We had surprisingly nice weather, made many new friends, and returned feeling refreshed and inspired. For anyone who's interested in traveling to Ireland to check out the oyster scene first-hand, I am here to give you some inspiration and insight.
First, you'll want to read about the oyster farms in Ireland that I visited.
Second, check out the variety of oysters around Ireland to get the big picture.
And then lastly, read on to get a sense of the path that I followed. It's one itinerary that won't disappoint.
Cliffs of Moher
I'm a sucker for nature. I love visiting National Parks and watching sunsets. Dramatic oceanfront cliffs are especially alluring, and the world-famous Cliffs of Moher are a must-see. These majestic plateaus of grassy, green fields stretch out like rolling waves on the sea, but plummet almost vertically into the deep blue water below. Located at the southwestern edge of the Burren region in County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher attract over one million visitors a year. While you won't find oysters anywhere near here, it's worth visiting to get a full sense of the environment. We had about half an hour to take a look around before having to move to our next oyster farm, which was enough to capture some iconic photos. Along the walk, we encountered a traditional Irish flutist playing some typical folk music. It was charming at first, but quickly turned the latter.
The Burren is a karst-landscape region in northwest County Clare, a bit inland from the Cliffs of Moher. It is one of the largest karst landscapes in Europe, bordered by the Atlantic and Galway Bay on the west and north, respectively. A small portion has been designated as Burren National Park, the smallest of Ireland's six National Parks. But despite it's size, The Burren is home to a remarkable collection of plants and animals. No doubt the limestone also has positive benefits to the oyster as well. Oyster shells are made of calcium carbonite, which contains elements that the limestone help supply. The crisp minerality of the oysters here might also be attributable to The Burren. We drove up the Green Road to see the rare species of flora and fauna for ourselves... and ended up eating wild blackberries while enjoying this view below. They were tasty! If you're a hiking lover, this is a great trail for you to try.
Moran's Oyster Cottage on the Weir
Moran's is a must-visit destination for all oyster and seafood lovers. This charming seafood restaurant is a family-run business that dates back more than 250 (!) years. That's two and a half times as old as NYC’s Grand Central Oyster Bar. In the 1800's, the Weir was a bustling trading port. Today, it's a peaceful and calm waterway. We had just left the Kelly Galway oyster farm, full of bivalves, so I decided to spend the remaining space in my stomach other fare. Moran's not only offers excellent seafood, but also has produced world champion oyster shuckers.
Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival
Every September, the Galway Oyster & Seafood Festival takes over this port town. Foodie fans from all over the world flock to this event for a weekend of eating, drinking, and being merry. No wonder it's considered one of National Geographic's Top 10 Must-Do's of September. This year, it was a double whammy as the National Hurling Championships were happening the same weekend. So you can imagine what happens when a lot of oysters + Guinness + a fiercely competitive and passionate sport all mix and mingle together. Awesomeness ensues. (By the way, for anyone who doesn't know hurling, check it out. It's a crazy sport!)
One of the festival's marquee events is the International Oyster Shucking Championship. This shucking competition determines the best of the best among the national shucking champions from around the world. 18 countries participated in the world championship this year. Each contestant must shuck 30 oysters cleanly and quickly. Some assume that getting the fastest time matters the most, which isn't true. It's about time AND presentation—in fact, the appearance of the oyster trays play a huge part in the judging. The competition has strict rules. Not having a good understanding of them may cost the shucker unnecessary deductions.
Kelly Galway supplied all of the oysters for the shucking competition. I was invited to guest judge the event and was briefed in on my duties the night before. I was surprised to find out that everyone would be shucking the native European flat oyster. There were so many of them—540 at the least—and I couldn't manage eating one! Sadly, I was way too hungover from celebrating the night before. Guinness beer is deceptively low in alcohol content, but nonetheless dangerous to a lightweight. But such is the Irish party life.
Amazing celebrity sighting: I got to meet Patrick McMurray, multi-year World Shucking Champion and oyster connoisseur at the festival! :D Although he wasn't competing, the crowds were still cheering for him. Clearly still a local favorite!
B also joined in on the oyster fun. He was asked to step in as a substitute entrant in the Tribal Oyster Feast-Off, a casual oyster-eating competition amongst non-local representatives from each of the 14 tribes of Galway. To my surprise, B was actually a very competitive oyster eater and ended up winning the whole thing. I totally didn't expect that to happen and neither did the organizers, I suspect.
Kelly Galway was the exclusive supplier of oysters throughout the festival. Every ticketed attendee had the opportunity to order half a dozen Galway natives for their slurping pleasure. Fresh Guinness flowed nonstop at the bar, and there were many other tasty food stands as well. I was surprised to find even a couple Japanese food stalls there. Sushi, it seems, is still a fairly new genre in Ireland. On the last day, a couple other oyster stalls popped up in the Marquee tent. Surprisingly, the first items to sell out were the live scallops. I couldn't even get my hands on one! Lucky for me, the Connemara oysters (both natives and rocks) were plenty delicious.
When we were in Dublin, one of the many touristy things to do was to visit The Temple Bar. It was actually less crowded than I expected it to be. I ordered a delicious crab sandwich and these two tasty oyster shooters. Definitely order the oyster shooters and make some new friends. I really liked the menu/restaurant philosophy, "If you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster." So true.
A Quick Wrap-Up of the Ireland Oyster Tour Basics
When to go
It might be best to plan your trip for late September so you can catch the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival. It will just be past Ireland's peak tourism season, so you might be able to score some deals on airfare or lodging. The cooler temperatures also make for incredible oysters!
What to pack
Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. A lightweight waterproof and windproof jacket is a must. Durable walking shoes. Layers are your friend. And maybe a little empty space in your luggage for some spirited souvenirs (read: Irish whiskey).
For how long and how many places
Give yourself a week to explore three major areas. We spent most of our time in Galway and the surrounding area, but also had a couple days to explore Dublin. You probably don't want to do more than that or else it wouldn't be very relaxing. The coasts are beautiful and you'll want to take things slow. Also, plan for things to go wrong as it definitely happens.
Where to stay
Do consider Hotel Meyrick in Galway. It's right next to the train station and walking distance from the Galway Oyster Festival tents and the city's party area. In Dublin, we stayed at the Trinity City Hotel. It's also conveniently located by Trinity College. We found Dublin to be very easy to walk—especially since we're used to walking everywhere as New Yorkers.
Want more suggestions on where to go? Or do you have suggestions you'd like to share? Leave a comment!