A pilgrimage from Toronto to Galway, Ireland to slurp the tastiest European oysters available in Hogtown
Patrick McMurray is responsible for bringing Irish oysters to Toronto. He’s also a restaurateur, the Guinness World Record holder of most oysters shucked in under one minute, and author of the book “Consider the Oyster.” So when I told him that I was visiting Ireland and writing a story about Irish oysters, he made one suggestion: “Visit the Kellys and the Morans,” two oyster families from Clarinbridge, County Galway in the West Coast.
Since the days of Starfish – McMurray’s 13-year-old oyster bar in Toronto, (which was rebranded to the Pearl Diver pub in 2014) – he’s been importing the European flat oyster (also known as the Galway oyster or native oyster) from Kelly’s organic oyster farm. McMurray has also made more than one pilgrimage to Moran’s on the Weir, a 300-year-old, thatched-roof cottage turned resto-pub located only a 10-minute tractor ride away from the Kellys, where tourists and locals alike go to taste a 4,000-year-old species that’s only in season from September to April each year.
Having taken McMurray’s advice, I’m now back in Toronto sitting at Ceili Cottage in the Leslieville neighbourhood. He’s bright-eyed and visibly provoked upon hearing that I’d tasted the native oyster in Ireland. “Did you sit in my chair?” he asks almost giddily, about my time at Moran’s, before immediately being distracted by a photo he took himself that’s hanging on the wall: “And does the road to the oyster beds at Kelly’s still look like this?”
It does, I inform him, though in truth it’s less like a road and more like a series of S-shaped tire tracks tattooed onto the grass. “Why, in Ireland, do they always have to have a winding road?” McMurray asks in earnest, as I begin to giggle. “Why can’t they just go like that?” He erects his arm to mimic a straight road.
Clarinbridge, County Galway
It’s early April 2016, and my boyfriend Tomas (who was born and raised in Galway) and I, are visiting Ireland to attend a wedding. Inspired by McMurray’s enthusiasm about the native oyster, I convince Tomas to take me to the Kelly’s farm, located only about an hour out from where he grew up.
Next thing you know, we’re bobbing around in the middle seat of the van, while Diarmuid Kelly drives us up the curved road to the oyster beds. As I peer out onto Brandy Bay, I’m enthralled by the colours of the land – a palette of greens and blues washed with a hazy grey on most days. Today is different though, and it’s just sheer luck that we arrived at the farm on the first day Galway was graced with real spring sun.
All around us, the oyster shells are camouflaged by shiny islands of black rock. “Be careful, or you’re going to get wet,” instructs Kelly, as we stomp into the water. “The tide is coming in.” In a matter of seconds, he’s pulled a glistening native oyster (still hairy with bits of seaweed and earth) up from the water. “You can see how nice and colourful they are; you’re looking at [one that’s] maybe four or five years old,” he explains. “And it goes down in just 10 seconds,” I interject.
“You have to appreciate them and savour them,” he says.
He should know. Diarmuid’s father Micheal (pronounced as “me-hall”) Kelly is the one who spawned the idea of starting his own oyster business in these waters when, at 18, he watched most of region’s yield get shipped out to France and Holland to “finish,” which means that before the oysters are sold, they spend their last year in French or Dutch waters. Finishing in those countries allowed them to be branded as French or Dutch, and any association to Ireland is lost to the unknowing consumer.
Armed with a good idea, Micheal Kelly started small by supplying local Clarinbridge pub owner, Paddy Burke (whose pub is still alive today) with his product. He then grew to become the official oyster purveyor of the Clarinbridge and Galway annual oyster festivals, which both started in 1954. The latter is the most-awaited event of the global oyster-shucking community. It’s also where the Kellys and the Morans met McMurray, when he became the only Canadian (thus far) to win the world oyster shucking championship in 2002.
By 1980, Micheal Kelly began shipping the mollusk abroad, and now the small family oyster farm (their facilities only slightly larger than a three-car garage), exports to 14 countries – Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, the UAE, Malaysia and Singapore.
“Why don’t you guys go to the U.S?” I ask Diarmuid, given that New York, like London and Paris, has long been considered an oyster-eating capital of the world. “Because there’s no agreement between the US and Europe at the moment,” he says.
Unbeknownst to many, the United States and the EU have yet to agree on equivalent purification, quality control and labelling/packaging processes of live bivalve mullosks, thereby creating a seamless means of trade. But Diarmuid Kelly believes the food inspection agencies will reach an consensus within the next 12 months.
And while that’s brewing, most people in the industry (including Diarmuid) agree that Toronto continues to be the top destination for oysters in North America, simply because of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s long-standing alliance with New Zealand, the U.S. and the EU. It helps that Canada has its own oysters too.
When I imply that the trade agreement between the U.S and EU will be good for business, Diarmuid confesses that they’ve already had a significant number of inquiries, and that they’re treading with caution: “We’re not looking for any more [business] at the moment. There’s a balance between having a nice artisan-type product, and having a mass-produced product – you have to be careful.”
For Diarmuid, the line between artisan and mass produced is measured by the gratification he gets from his work: “You know, if you get too big and you’re not enjoying it; you’re only working for the sake of working or you’re employing more people than [you can handle]…I think there’s enough people, and enough capacity in the country for other oyster farms to do [what we do] as well.”
Customer satisfaction is paramount to the Kellys, and although they’re one of the largest oyster farms in Ireland to pack oysters in seaweed and baskets, and sell direct to consumer, that level of intimacy between the farmer and his product prevails.
Moran’s on the Weir
Michael Moran is one such customer. His family has owned Moran’s on Weir, the white cottage that was once a humble watering hole servicing the turf (also known as peat) port in the village, for seven generations. Moran’s grandmother, who lived in the cottage, turned it into a restaurant in the 1960’s when she began selling fresh oysters, smoked salmon and brown bread. It has since become the top destination to try the Kelly’s oyster in West Coast Ireland.
Moran says the longstanding buzz about place comes from sourcing the best food from purveyors in close proximity: “Every morning at 9 o’clock, we phone Diarmuid or Micheal and the van pops down. That’s the oysters every single day,” he explains.
As Moran shows us around inside – only a few steps away from the central fireplace that wafts the musky aroma of burning peat – is a handwritten copy of Oysters, by Seamus Heaney, Irish poet and Nobel Prize Winner. He often travelled to Moran’s to slurp the oyster in season. Scattered across the walls are pictures of actors, dynasties (Pierce Brosnan, the Emperor and Empress of Japan) as well as men gathered in groups during the early Guinness parties, back when the cottage was only serving beer and spirits. It seems, just as McMurray vowed, Moran’s is the place to taste the native oyster.
We moved outside onto tables facing the Kilcolgan River, and a round of the European flats hit the table. We’ve managed to catch the them at the tail end of their season. “Do you want any horseradish with that Christina?” Moran asks. “I just remember how much of it I was grating in Toronto. We don’t have the fresh stuff here; it’s just horseradish cream.”
As an oyster shucker, Moran has spent a good bit of time in Toronto, a city he also deems one of the oyster hubs of the world. And though I tasted the natives at McMurray’s Ceili Cottage earlier on in the season, what lay before me looked far more tantalizing. Even Tomas, who has never really taken to oysters in Toronto or anywhere else for that matter, looked at them with an appetite over aversion.
Maybe it was the rare sunshine, or that we were sitting amongst the calm, moving echo of the river where the oysters grow, or that we’d just learnt about their history from Diarmuid Kelly earlier that morning, but I looked over, and there he went, slurping oyster after oyster, void of Tabasco, horseradish cream and even droplets of lemon. Like Seamus Heaney, Tomas was home.
Ceili Cottage, Toronto
McMurray has flipped through the oyster book he’s created and is pointing to a tasting wheel. The range of flavours are vast – mild, earthy, sweet, dry, clean, floral, fruit, and the list goes on. “In the wine world you call it terroir, in the oyster world we called it merroir,” he explains. “It’s the taste in merroir – the ocean or the bay that it comes from that day. It can change; next week it can be different.”
The majority of McMurray’s customers gravitate towards the simple, salty-sweet profile of the East Coast Malpeque oyster, which is grown in the bays of Prince Edward Island. So McMurray believes that it’s the restaurateurs’ responsibility to introduce their customers to new flavours, since the city is mostly used to what’s available – Pacific and East Coast.
“When I started bringing in European product, what you noticed most is that the species has a flavour range,” he says. “[The Kelly’s] oyster is unlike anything you can experience here in North America – sea salt, a little bit of sweet cream, driftwood (so you get an earthy note in the middle), and a dry tannic finish.”
People who have a palate for complexity and new textures are the ones McMurray introduces the native oyster to, even if they’ve never tried oysters before. “I always like to see how it goes,” he says.
To play devil’s advocate, I question McMurray about who asks for the European flat oyster (other than him and I), if the demand for Canadian, East Coast Malpaques is the sweet spot for Toronto restaurants. He responds half jokingly: “Me.”
“As a restaurateur it’s insane to bring them in because they cost so much more,” he explains. But like most people, McMurray has a vice, and that vice is oysters: “When you see that price point, you’re like, ‘why am I going to spend that much money on this oyster [from Ireland]?’ [But] I go, ‘why am I going to spend that much money on French wine?’”