by Bekah Angoff
It’s part brute force and part ballet mixed with some secret agent type stuff.
Where there is craft, there is competition, as there is someone who is always better, stronger and faster. Oyster shucking is no different, as speed is often the game. If you have ever sat at an oyster counter with someone shucking live, you have the pleasure of watching up close how quickly the shucker pries open each shell, cleans the meat and presents them on a bed of ice. It’s part brute force and part ballet mixed with some secret agent type stuff (complete with utility belt). Now, let’s take that careful choreography, pair it with other shuckers and time the whole thing. Let the games begin!
There are competitions all over the globe happening at every place from an afternoon on the beach to large scale oyster festivals or celebrations and every challenge is different. After copious amounts of research and talking to some of the pros, here are some general guidelines for an oyster shucking competition:
- You will be given a number of oysters to review before the contest starts, allowing you inspect the oysters for any that may be hollow or dead or less than favorably shaped for speed’s sake. The number of oysters shucked changes from even to event, ranging from about 18 to 30 per contest, and can be more than one species.
- The oysters will usually be provided by the local sponsoring entity (ie: Standish Shore oysters used at the Seafood Expo North America oyster shucking competition)
- Your oyster knife or knives will be approved by the judges, making sure that you have no mechanical advantage over any other competitor.
- The competition can be a one-shot deal or in heat form, depending on the depth of the field
- Time will often be measured by individual hand timers assigned to each competitor
- Once the competitor has finished opening their oysters, they may signal by putting their hands up or by ringing a bell/ buzzer
- Time additions will be designated by the judges for unfavorable oysters, such as broken shells, foreign matter in the oyster (such as shell, mud or blood), pierced bellies, torn gills, or anything that makes the oyster not suitable for consumption
- Time bonuses can be deducted for cleanliness, efficiency, and overall presentation
- Cash prizes are often awarded to the winner and sometimes there is an opportunity to move on to more contests
"I liked being underestimated."
One of our friends here at Pangea is a legend in the competitive shucking circuit. Eamon Clark of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto and I had the opportunity to chat about a few of his competitive experiences last week over the phone. Eamon is an ebullient oyster lover who prides himself on his presentation. He started working at his father’s restaurant, working his way up through the ranks to become an efficient shucker and eventually went to culinary school for a well-rounded education. At the beginning of his competitive career, he was the spritely underdog arriving to these large Canadian events to drink some beer, meet some people, and then shuck oysters faster than anyone else. “Everyone looked at me with the expression ‘Who is this young kid? What is he doing here?’ and I just went about my business. I liked being underestimated,” said Eamon. In Galway in 2014, Eamon arrived with his many years of experience and came in 2nd place in the world shucking 30 of 32 European flats (ostrea edulis) in about 2.5 minutes. This is an impressive feat, yet truly understandable for the man who is the current Canadian record holder.
What better way to illustrate the intense world of competitive shucking than to attend a local competition at B&G Oysters in the South End of Boston. This past weekend, the BL Gruppo put on the B&G Oyster Invitational which brought together oyster farmers, harvesters, distributors and chefs from around the Northeast under the guise of one heck of a block party. At the end of the event, they staged a competition in four rounds - Round 1: Farmers, Round 2: BL Gruppo, Round 3: Chefs, Round 4: The Championship Round.
In the first round, it was NorthCoast Seafood vs. American Mussel Harvesters. Both shuckers had 2 minutes to choose 8 oysters from a large vat at the front of the table. After, they had to leave their knife on the table and have their hands in the air to wait for the start signal. Once the announcer gave the word, the two shuckers tore into their bounty, aiming to open just 6 of the 8 oysters chosen (the extras are there in case of broken or undesirable oysters). In under two minutes, both shuckers completed their plates and stepped away with their hands in the air. I judged this event along with our friend Paul Hagan of John Nagle Company. We poked at the shells to make sure bellies were intact and that the meats were disconnected from the shells. The shucker from NorthCoast was the clear winner. In the next rounds, the BL Gruppo winner was one of their sous chefs, and the chef round was won by the head shucker from Neptune Oyster.
The last heat was the most anticipated for a few reasons. The three shuckers had to choose their oysters from the bin that the previous heats chose from, leaving the less desirable bent hinges and thin bills, making the last round all the more challenging. Plus, this was the championship round. Again, the shuckers had their knives on the table and their hands in the air until the announcer made the call. The shuckers took off and hunched over the table, making light work of each twisted shell. The first to finish was Fernanda from Neptune, who barely broke a sweat in the early spring sun. Next was Julio from the Gruppo, followed closely by Scott from NorthCoast. Now, the time was one thing, but Paul and I made some careful observations over the plates. Julio had some shell fragments, but his bellies were all intact. Scott had some pierced bellies and torn gills and not all were disconnected from the shell. Fernanda had every oyster without any rips or shell fragments, but not all were disconnected fully from the shell. In the end, Fernanda was the clear winner, and man, those oysters tasted like sweet victory!
Be sure to check out when the next oyster festival hits your town so you can see this amazing event up close and personal.
#shuckon and #eatmoreoysters