The annual TABASCO® Brand British Oyster Opening Championship is something of a regular diary date on the Lover of Creating Flavours calendar. Unable to attend in person this year because of work commitments we asked Callum Hughes our good friend and sometimes sous chef at our restaurant La Petite Bouchée to step up to the plate, I’ve seen Callum work with shellfish and I knew he was was the right man for the job. Here is his account of what was as always a shucking fabulous event. From everyone here at Lover of Creating Flavours… Happy 25th Anniversary !
On Tuesday the 5th September and with less than twenty-four hours’ notice I find myself at 25th anniversary TABASCO® Brand British Oyster Opening Championship. Not a sentence I’ve said before I can assure you. I have taken my friend Sam along to keep me company as I enter through the doors of the Carousel restaurant in Baker St into a world of Great British eccentricity. Something I become convinced we need more of in our kitchens as in life.
The annual event celebrates the start of Britain’s native oyster season by honouring the skill and expertise involved in the craft of oyster shucking. The scored competition challenges shuckers to open and present 30 native oysters as quickly and professionally as possible, before serving their platter of impeccably presented oysters to a panel of judges.
Champagne in handed out on a arrival and we begin to ‘mingle’. Soon we are chatting to a range of people from all sorts of backgrounds. A hush falls over the excited chatter as TV Chef Brian Turner takes to the stage to explain the rules and regulations of the competition. Each ‘Shucker’ must shuck thirty oysters, turn them in their shell and present them on the bed of ice provided. There must be no blood on the shell and marks will be deducted for torn flesh and lack of presentation. The fastest, most consistent shucker wins.
As the competitors begin to psyche themselves up (there are sixteen of them this year) I notice a new born (seven week old) baby sleeping soundly on her mother’s chest. I ask her: ‘’Who are you supporting’? ‘My husband’ she replied, beaming as she is joined by new father and competitor, Tom of Scott’s Restaurant. The couple met there years ago before starting a family. This is his first year competing as his former colleague Michael ‘Beans’ Heins has moved onto Wright Bros and so he’s had to step up to the plate to keep the tradition going. It also means that they’ll be competing against each other which heightens the stakes further. I can’t help but imagine this new baby as a famous chef himself one day after being brought up in a world like this.
The first heat is called and the first four shuckers take to their podiums. The speed and ferocity with which these competitors attack these shells is insane. Few are using protective gloves which proves to be a mistake for some shuckers with one slicing his hand open on the second oyster. It won’t be the last injury of the day, that’s for sure.
In-between each heat there is a break for the judges to assess the handiwork of the competitors and for us to drink more champagne. As one of the young waitresses struggles with a stubborn cork, I hear a strong french accent bellow behind me ‘Give it here, I will open it – after all, it is my Champagne!’ Martine Moutard, a wonderfully eccentric woman. The openness of everyone here is brilliant. Consequently Sam and I stumble into a conversation with the proprietor of the Wright Bros. He tells me how whilst September isn’t the greatest time for oysters normally, the fact that these are from Scotland, where the water is colder, means they’re actually top notch (I couldn’t agree more!).
We find ourselves into the very last round of the day. The whooping and cheering has reached a peak and everyone is supporting either their fellow shuckers, their chefs or their friends. Turner’s advice ringing in their ears: ‘Keep going to the bitter end’. The results are in – the winner with an impressive time of three minutes and nineteen seconds is the baby-faced Frederico Fiorillo of Bentley’s restaurant. He is grinning from ear to ear for the rest of the day. Not least because he bagged himself the trophy and two hundred and fifty quid – but because he’ll be going to galway to compete for Britain at the World Oyster Opening Championships. Which I can only imagine – will be even more of a festival of flavour.
Fiorillo said: “Celebrating the start of the 2017 British native oyster season and being a part of the 25th annual TABASCO® Brand British Oyster Opening Championship was a huge honour! It was a tough competition, with the UK’s top shuckers and chefs all competing, I’m absolutely delighted to win and secure a place at the World Oyster Opening Championships.”
One last thing….
In the UK, TABASCO® Sauce was first introduced as an accompaniment to oysters over 100 years ago in 1905. To this day, it is still the most favoured pairing with oysters and remains a popular combination on restaurant menus and table tops around the world.
Photo credit to TABASCO® Brand British Oyster Opening Championship, Callum Hughes and Anita-Clare Field