Irish Oyster Cuisine

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Native Irish Oysters (Ostrea edulis) are at their very best when there is an r in the month. During the warm summer months the flesh becomes soft and milky and even though edible the flavour and texture are undesirable. They are at their plumpest and most gorgeous right now and will still be delicious until the end of April.

Máirín Uí Chomáin, author of Irish Oyster Cuisine, has had a love affair with oysters for many years. Living within an ‘oars length of the sea’ in Co. Galway she’s well placed to explore the rugged sea shore and to forage for shellfish and seaweed along the coastline. Since childhood ‘the sea has coaxed her’, she’s always had a deep yearning to learn more about our maritime heritage and an urge to write a book about oysters and carrageen. 

As a fledgling home economist, her first assignment was to teach young Aran Island fishermen how to cook well for themselves during their long voyages at sea. Her career path took her away from her native Connemara to Dublin and the US where she saw at first hand how different ethnic groups treasured their food culture and traditions. Like many an Irish emigrant, separation gave her a more acute appreciation of the quality of Irish life and produce.

The native Irish oyster is prized by gourmands the world over, no other oyster, except perhaps the tiny Olympian oyster from the North Atlantic has that fresh briny mineraly tang. Oysters are highly nutritious, low in calories, high in calcium, Vitamins A & D, selenium and zinc. They have a well-deserved reputation as an aphrodisiac and a reputation for enhancing fertility. Máirín also tells me that because oysters produce serotonin they help to regulate sleep and fight infection.

Two types of oyster are now cultivated in Ireland. The Pacific or rock oyster, Crassotrea gigas, was introduced in the 1970’s to provide for all year round production and supplement the native Irish oyster production. Irish water temperatures are too cool for gigas to spawn but they can be very successfully cultivated in ponds, a system perfected by David Hugh-Jones of Rossmore oysters.

Sadly, this enterprise which was the largest of its kind in Europe has had to cease production because the water quality in Cork Harbour has deteriorated so badly.

The gigas oysters are good eaten raw, but because they tend to be plumper than the native oyster, they are also perfect for cooking.

The native Irish oyster is so special and precious that I feel its best eaten fresh with a glass of stout, dry white wine or champagne and some good Irish soda bread.

The native variety takes up to five years to grow and mature (you can count the rings on the back of the shell like the bark of a tree) to harvestable size, while the Pacific oyster reaches that stage in 18 -28 months. They are grown on low frames at low tide mark and can also be cultivated at far higher density than the native oyster.

In her charming book Irish Oyster Cuisine, Máirín Uí Chomáin gives us a variety of delicious cooked oyster recipes plus suggestions for using seaweeds like carrageen, dulse, kombu – here are few examples but there are lots more in her book which recently won the international Gourmand Award for the Best Seafood Book.

Irish Oyster Cuisine by Máirín uí Chomáin published by A.&A. Farmar €14.99

Buy  Irish Oyster Cuisine, from Amazon

Thoor Ballylee Oysters (Oysters with cognac dressing)

– from Irish Oyster Cuisine
Among those who often visited the Gregory home was W.B. Yeats. While Yeats is associated very much with Sligo where he is buried, he bought a derelict tower house near Coole at Ballylee. This he restored ‘with old mill boards and sea-green slates, and smith work from the Gort forge’, then renamed it Thoor Ballylee – ‘thoor’ being the Irish word for tower. When you have finished studying the Yeats memorabilia, you can have an expansive view of the south Galway countryside from the tower rooftop.
Serves 4

24 flat oysters in half shells
juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons cognac
salt, freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil

Garnishes

Crushed ice
Lettuce leaves

Mix together the lemon juice, cognac, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the olive oil very slowly, stirring continuously until the dressing is well combined.

To serve:

Cover a large platter with crushed ice and arrange the lettuce leaves on top. Carefully arrange the oysters on top of the lettuce. Spoon the dressing over the oysters and serve.

Oyster Soup

Serves 6
18-24 oysters, shells removed, juices strained and reserved
2 large potatoes
110g/4oz pork belly, finely diced
600ml/20 fl.oz milk
bouquet garni
salt, freshly ground pepper
40g/1½ oz butter, cubed

Fry the pork belly until crisp and set aside. Boil, peel and mash the potatoes. Heat the milk and add it to the mashed potatoes. Add the bouquet garni, salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Add the pork, oysters and juices and simmer gently for 2-3 minutes. Add the butter and mix gently. Check the seasoning and serve hot. 

Note: you can use less milk if you prefer a thicker soup.

Renvyle Oysters (Oysters in hot cream)

Serves 4
16-24 oysters in half shells
6-8 tablespoons cream
freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons Cheddar or farmhouse cheese, grated
25g/1oz butter, melted

Preheat the grill to high. Loosen the oysters in their shells and carefully place them on the grill pan. Spoon a little cream over each one and sprinkle with pepper. Sprinkle some cheese on top and dribble the melted butter over each oyster. Grill until golden (2-3 minutes).

Kevin’s Oyster Pie

Oysters have an affinity with many Irish ingredients, Irish beef being one of them.
Serves 4

12 oysters, shells removed, juices strained and reserved
2 tablespoons plain flour
salt, freshly ground black pepper
700g/1½lb rib beef, cubed
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
1-2 onions, finely chopped
225g/8oz mushrooms, chopped
425ml/15fl.oz Guinness
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
200g/7oz ready made puff pastry

Accompaniment
Green salad or baked potatoes

Season the flour with salt and pepper. Toss the beef in the flour. Heat the oil in a large, heavy frying pan. Once the oil is hot, add the beef to the pan a little at a time and seal. (Be careful not to overcrowd the pan as this will only create a stewing process.) Remove the beef from the pan.

Fry the onions and mushrooms until soft and then return the meat to the pan. Add the Guinness, Worcestershire sauce and oyster juices and season with salt and pepper. Mix well, cover and simmer until the meat is tender (about 1½ hours). Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Add the oysters.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Grease a deep pie dish. Pour the mixture into the pie dish. Cover with the pastry, leaving a slight overhang around the edge of the dish. Crimp the edges firmly and cut an air vent in the centre of the pastry.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 18C/350F/gas mark 4 and bake for a further 30 minutes until the meat is heated through.
Serve hot with a green salad or baked potatoes.
Note: You could also make four individual pies rather than one large one.

Dooras House oysters (Oyster salad)

Serves 4
12-16 oysters, shells removed (4 shell halves retained)
2 tablespoons sunflower oil

Dressing:

1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Coating:

1 tablespoon fine breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
freshly ground black pepper

Garnishes:

1 small red onion, finely grated
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
selection of lettuce leaves

Mix all the dressing ingredients in a bowl until well combined. Set aside.

Mix the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, parsley and pepper together in a bowl. Toss the oysters in the crumb mixture and chill for half an hour to allow the oysters to firm up and the coating to settle. Pour the oil into a frying pan and, when hot, fry the oysters until golden all over.
Mix together the red onion and red wine vinegar.

To serve:

In a large bowl, toss the lettuce leaves in the dressing. Arrange the oysters on top. Spoon the red onion mixture into the oyster shells and serve alongside the salad.

Quick Dulse Brown Bread

Dulse (dilisc/creathnach) is a sea vegetable
450g /1lb ready made Irish brown bread mix
25g/1 oz wheat germ
25g/1 oz oat bran
2 tablespoons dulse, finely chopped or ground
1 tablespoon pinhead oatmeal
425ml/15fl.oz fresh or sour milk
3 tablespoons sunflower oil

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/fas mark 6. Grease a 23 x 11cm/9 x 4½ inch loaf tin. Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Mix the milk and oil together in a jug. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture, pour in the liquid and mix from the centre out with a wooden spoon until all the ingredients are combined and the consistency is quite wet. Pour the mixture into the loaf tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 40-50 minutes until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.

Mummy’s Brown Soda Bread

Makes 1 loaf
225g (1/2lb) white flour
225g (1/2lb) wholemeal flour (Howard’s-one-way)
Barely rounded teaspoon bread soda
Level teaspoon salt
450ml (16fl oz) buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºf/gas mark 6.

Mix the flour in a large wide bowl, add the salt and sieved bread soda. Lift the flour up with your fingers to distribute the salt and bread soda.

Make a well in the centre and pour in all the buttermilk. With your fingers stiff and outstretched, stir in a circular movement from the centre to the outside of the bowl in ever increasing concentric circles. When you reach the outside of the bowl seconds later the dough should be made.

Sprinkle a little flour on the worktop.

Turn the dough out onto the flour. WASH and dry your hands. (Fill the bowl with cold water so it will be easy to wash later.)

Sprinkle a little flour on your hands. Gently tidy the dough around the edges and flip onto the flour. Tuck the edges underneath with the inner edge of your hands, gently pat the dough with your fingers into a loaf about 4cm (1 ½ in) thick.

Cut a deep cross into the bread (this is called ‘Blessing the bread’ and then prick it in the centre of the four sections to let the fairies out of the bread).
Transfer to a floured baking tray.

Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes. Turn the bread upside down after approximately 30 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack.
Foolproof Food

Hot Buttered Oysters on Toast

These wonderfully curvaceous oyster shells tend to topple over maddeningly on the plate so that the delicious juices escape. In the kitchen at Ballymaloe they solve this problem by piping a little blob of mashed Duchesse potato on the plate to anchor each shell.
12 Pacific (Gigas) oysters
1 oz (30 g) butter
½ teaspoon parsley, finely chopped

To Serve

4 segments of lemon
4 ovals of hot buttered toast (optional)

Open the oysters and detach completely from their shells. Discard the top shell but keep the deep shell and reserve the liquid. Put the shells into a low oven to heat through. Melt half the butter in a pan until it foams. Toss the oysters in the butter until hot through - 1 minute perhaps. 

Put a hot oyster into each of the warm shells. Pour the reserved oyster liquid into the pan and boil up, whisking in the remaining butter and the parsley. Spoon the hot juices over the oysters and serve immediately on hot plates with a wedge of lemon. 

Alternatively discard the shells and just serve the oysters on the hot buttered toast. The toast will soak up the juice - Simply Delicious!
A dozen Oysters and a pint of Murphys or Guinness 

If you come from Cork Murphys is the sacred drop – Guinness is not quite the same but we have to admit it makes a good substitute.
What could be easier or more delicious than a dozen freshly shucked oysters with Irish wheaten bread and a pint of gorgeous creamy stout.

Serves 1 but also great for numbers.

1 dozen native Irish oysters
600ml (1 pint) of Murphy or Guinness

It’s wise to protect your hand with a folded tea towel when opening oysters. Set the deep shell on the folded tea towel which has already been wrapped around your hand.

The wide end of the oyster should be on the inside. Grip the oysters firmly in your protected hand while you insert the tip of the knife into the hinge. Twist to lever the two shells apart, you’ll need to exert quite a lot of pressure, so it’s foolhardy not to protect your hand well. Then slide the blade of the knife under the top shell to detach the oyster from the shell. Discard the top shell, then loosen the oyster from the deep shell, flip over to reveal the plump side, don’t lose the precious briny juice. 

Arrange on a plate on a bed of seaweed or sea salt. 
Serve with a segment of lemon and a pint of the black stuff!


Hot Tips

Mushroom Hunt at Longueville House Hotel, Mallow, Co Cork, Sunday October 16th – Don your wellies, bring your waterproofs, and hike around the estate in search of mushrooms with the guidance of a mushroom expert – mulled wine reception and afterwards Chef William O’Callaghan and his team will prepare a banquet of autumn mushrooms from the day’s harvest. Advance booking and payment essential as numbers limited – Tel 022 47156 or 
info@longuevillehouse.ie   www.longuevillehouse.ie  Special weekend packages available.

Growing Awareness – Hands on Composting Workshop Sunday 16th October at Madeline McKeever’s Ardagh, Church Cross, Skibbereen, Co Cork, 10.45am -4.30pm
Tips and tricks for making the best things to give to your soil – lovely compost.
Tel Tom or Ruth at 028-23889 or email tom@organiccollege.com  Cost €25 – bring a packed lunch. 

Baileys/Euro-Toques Young Chef 2005 sponsored by R & A Bailey- the makers of Baileys Irish Cream
Baileys/Euro-Toques Young Chef is the most prestigious competition in the country for up and coming young chefs. Candidates must be nominated by a Euro-Toques Chef – full details from info@eurotoquesirl.org  Tel 01-677 99 77 www.eurotoquesirl.org   Closing date 20th October. 


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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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