Oyster shucking competitions have a good long history from the days in the mid 19th century when oysters were shucked and their meat shipped off in cans from the East coast of America. By the middle of the 19th century when railroads had penetrated into the heart of the country, oyster consumption rocketed and demand for these molluscs was insatiable. Shucking grew up in the packinghouses and canneries, located in the seedy quarters of harbours like Baltimore and New York. It was dirty, exhausting and repetitive work that only attracted the poor from the lowest echelons of society.
In a way to relieve the sheer boredom of the work, shucking competitions started being held from about the last quarter of the 19th century when it was a sport that could earn a good shucker a decent livelihood. In the oyster canning business, the shuckers were paid piece-rates, by the amount or weight they shucked and speed was at a premium. Kurlansky (2006, 180) describes the vibrant atmosphere of the shucking sheds in New York at that time, when shuckers were fiercely competitive amongst themselves. In addition, there were competitions for the fastest sail-boat run from Staten Island to Chesapeake Bay and back with seed oysters, the fastest tonger and so on. Contests were both local and regional and then grew into national events, where blacks and whites, men and women could take part on equal terms. Large, rowdy crowds were there, besides national newspapers; heavy betting took place and prize money was considerable (up to 4 months’ salary). In one contest, a shucker from Rhode Island in a North v South competition succeeded in opening 100 oysters in 3 minutes 3 seconds. Now shucking competitions are held at different oyster festivals that usually are held in the autumn, similar to any harvest festival to celebrate the opening of the season. Patrick McMurray, a Canadian champion several years running, has written an impassioned shucker’s guide to oysters Consider the Oyster (2007). According to him, the fairest and one of the biggest contests, takes place in Seattle in mid-March (formerly called the Oyster Olympics until the US Olympic Committee threatened litigation, despite the existence of the indigenous oyster that is named after the state capital on the Puget Sound called Olympia), where competitors have to chuck 12 each of the five, most common species. The past winners of the American championships reveal that a number of women have been crowned champions, as first men and women compete separately and then the two respective winners compete against each other. One legendary winner, many times over, has been Deborah Pratt who over more than 20 years has been one of the fastest shucker in her native state of Virginia, proving the rule that it is not just a question of brute force at all, more a subtle hand-and wrist technique, coordination and alacrity. The rules of the various competitions differ in detail, as do the competitors’ plan and method of attack, choice of equipment and style, but the aim, the spirit and the need to strike a balance between speed and perfection are the same.
Now this year, Copenhagen hosted a oyster shucking competition for the first time, called the World Oyster Cup, to which some of the very best shuckers from Europe and North America were invited. Some rumours had long been circulating about the arbitrariness of the judging in the World Championship held annually in Galway in Ireland. Anyway the Danes decided to organise a rival competition, its first ever.
It was a beautiful sunny and warm Saturday for the end of October, Copenhagen at its best. There at the gates of the famous and romantic Frederiksberg Gardens, the annual Oyster Trophy Week reached its climax with its grand finale of the World Cup. The week opens the oyster season when the Danish monarch is traditionally presented with the very first oysters of the season from Limfjorden. Until 1849 Danish oysters were considered part of the royal prerogative, dating from the days in 1587 when the then king Frederik II imposed a royal monopoly on the oyster beds, which at the time lined the kingdom’s western coast in the Wadden Sea. Ever since 1825 however, Limfjorden has been open to the North Sea, after a gale breached the thin Aggertangen isthmus, and flat oysters began settling some 10-15 years later. Since then Limfjorden, especially, its western banks around Nissum Bredning, has been home to its native oysters, where the water column has been free of the parasites Bonamia ostreae and Marteilia refringens which otherwise have been so prevalent along the coasts in Europe. They are among the finest oysters, full of succulent meat, and so rich in flavour without that overpowering metallic taste that often characterises the flat oyster, less briny and with a surprisingly shy, sweet aftertaste.
One of the Danish contestants preparing his fingers for the worst with tape
Back to the competition! The tent was first filled with Danish shuckers aspiring to win their national championship and to gain 2 places in the World Cup starting line. Two of the contestants were twins, Jonas and Simon Tønsager, young and hungry, and it was Simon who managed to win the Danish Cup and take one of the final spots; though in the qualification rounds he was beaten into first place by Jesper Knudsen, a well beefed-up combatant. So they were the Danish representatives to participate in the heats with shuckers from Scandinavia, Ireland, North America, England, Estonia and Germany. Unfortunately, no-one turned up from the Gallic countries like France or Belgium, home to some of the most proficient oyster openers. But the competition is what it should be – pure fun. They are all mostly great buddies and love the hype, the atmosphere and the chance to compete and may the best man win.
A presentation tray of delicious Limfjord oysters….mmmmm!
From the heats, four made the final, two from Scandinavia and two from Ireland. Michael Moran, from a star-studded family of Irish shuckers, like his father Willie, who holds the record for the fastest ever time in the Galway World Championships of 91 seconds, who actually works in finance when he’s not looking after the family’s legendary oyster restaurant near Clarinbridge, outside Galway, Moran’s Oyster Cottage, swept into the final with the fastest time from his heat. As the current world champion from Galway a few weeks previously, he has regularly been considered one of the great shuckers of the circuit. He was joined in the final by his Irish neighbour and colleague, Stephen Nolan, a quiet and unassuming young man, who had been bold enough to come to Copenhagen despite the fact that his wife was expecting their first baby two days later (he told me that she had told him to go anyway, and being a good husband he had decided to obey her!). Stephen had had a slower time in the heat but came through on the basis of his skillful technique which meant he had fewer penalty points.
Simon Tønsager beat his compatriot Jesper Knudsen by just a few seconds to make it into this prestigious final of four. He is one of the co-founders of this competition and passionate about these molluscs. The other Scandinavian who made the final was Johan Malm, runner-up in this year’s world championship in Galway, beaten by Michael Moran – of course! Their rivalry is as intense as their friendship, but Johan from Gothenburg in Sweden, whose restaurant, Gabriel in Feskekörka is the hub of the city’s temple of fish and shellfood, thrives on the challenge of a competition. Not the fastest or first to finish, he prides himself on precision, care and competitive drive. Now he was out for revenge for his defeat in Galway. His qualification time was the best, followed by Michael Moran’s. There was no doubt that this would be a hard-fought contest.
All the contestants scrutinise each oyster from the carton of 32 oysters for size and any irregularity and any suspicious looking oyster is substituted under the approving eyes of the judges. 30 oysters are selected and lined up, in rows of ten, flat side down, by the side of the presentation tray. Some are minutely pedantic, making sure that any seaweed or detritus clinging to the shell is blown or scraped away. Preparing the oysters is not only a necessarty part of the ritual but also functions as a chance to up the ante! Each competitor seems nervous and raring to go, eyes are piercingly focussed, hands are fidgeting, some pace back and forth waiting to be called into position. Each one has a bell on the table to ring to signal they have finished. After everyone is satisfied with their oysters and their placements, hands are raised above the head and the compere and crowd shout out in unison “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-go” and off they charge, accompanied by some rousing Irish music and noise from the enthusiastic public.
Jesper Knudsen, one of the Danish finalists, on the left, with Johan Malm, the eventual winner, getting their 30 oysters ready for shucking
Now these Danish oysters were brimming with fleshy meat after a cold summer when little spawning seemed to have occurred. The adductor muscle and hinge were strong so that opening them presented several challenges. The contestants realised that scars and penalty points were going to be inevitable as their knives would immediately encounter the oyster flesh. Since the hinge was strong, more brute force would be needed to penetrate the hinge, thus incurring more risk to the flesh and higher penalty points, so many opted for a thinner bladed knife to avoid initial contact. These professionals make their own special knives and have several depending on the kind of oyster to be opened. Most use double bladed knives, one for opening and the other to cut the oyster from the bottom shell, whilst a few traditionalists, mainly those from North America use a single blade for both purposes. The oysters tasted so good, plump, rich and meaty, having a slightly sweet aftertaste, possibly due to the higher glycogen content after a summer without spawning. Anyway, they would prove to be a hard shell to crack.
Under starter’s orders for the off and on the right is Stephen Nolan, from Ireland, who finished in 4th place
The noise was phenomenal and most were cheering, naturally, for Simon, the Danish contestant and youngest finalist. Michael was racing away at frenetic speed, his white woolly hat bobbing to and fro as he mercilessly attacked each oyster. The compere keeps count of the number of oysters shucked by the competitors, and the noise reaches a crescendo as they finish and ring their bells. Michael was by far and away the fastest, finishing off 15 or 20 seconds before Johan Malm and Simon Tønsager rang their bells at the same time. Johan worked away with methodical concentration, shouting out the odd swearword when something went wrong, and was also sporting a grey woollen hat (but had removed his sunglasses!). Simon was serious, intent, and well-focussed, whilst Stephen hovered over his oysters and seemed economic, almost leisurely, in his approach and style.
So after the judges had been handed the trays and scored each presentation – the trays are numbered so the judges have no idea whose tray it is they are inspecting – the results were announced. 4 seconds are added for any oyster, not severed from its shell, or with shell or grit on its flesh, or if any flesh is scarred, or not presented upright. In the event (as did happen) that an oyster is lost or not presented, 30 seconds are added; the same goes for any signs of blood (which didn’t happen)! Bonus points (up to 30) are awarded for presentation at the discretion of the judges as to how attractive the oysters would look to a customer in a restaurant.
Johan Malm screams out his delight the moment he is announced winner of the first World Oyster Cup!
All the competitors are ushered onto the stage as their positions are announced, and prizes given, but in the end there are two contestants left for the first two places, inevitably almost, Michael Moran and Johan Malm. Revenge is sweet, after all, and Johan Malm screams out his delight when he’s announced as winner. Michael and he bear-hug each other up and the crowd, well inebriated, join in. Johan’s overall winning time is just 6 seconds faster than Michael’s and both their times are considerably faster by 25-30 seconds than their respective qualifying times.
Johan and Michael celebrate, having come first and second
It had been a great show, well-supervised by another Nordic legendary oyster shucker, Hasse Johannesson, and the public had been able to eat up the oysters provided by the Limfjord fisheries, Vilsund Blue and Glyngøre Shellfish, and wash them down with special Oyster Stout, brewed in Fanø on Jylland by the Mikkeller micro-brewery, with one oyster for every liter. So book your tickets to Copenhagen for next year’s Oyster Week!