Recipes and Traditions from the Falmouth Oyster Festival

Falmouth, Cornwall is a port town on the River Fal in the south of England. For centuries, it has held an important place in the United Kingdom's maritime history. The city's name is even derived from that of the river on which it sits, inextricable linking the town to the water and to a maritime lifestyle. Today, the Falmouth Oyster Festival pays tribute to that lifestyle and to the delicious Falmouth oysters.

Every October since 1996, Falmouth has held an Oyster Festival in order to celebrate the tradition of dredging oysters and the countless recipes that showcase the oysters' versatility and desirability. The festival has been steadily gaining in popularity and attendance since its inception. In fact, the 2009 Falmouth Oyster Festival was by far the largest and most successful festival to date.

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Over 28,000 people attended the four-day festival in 2009; a remarkable number considering the population of Falmouth hovers just around 24,000 individuals. The droves of attendees ate over 20,000 oysters while learning about the history of the town's oyster cultivation, which is quite unique. Cornish fishermen traditionally dredge oysters using the sail and hand punt technique.

Every year, the Falmouth Oyster Festival opens with a master-chef class and book signing from a famous culinary professional. Through this experience, festival attendees can learn recipes that make use of the delicious Falmouth oysters. These recipes are numerous and varied, but several of the more traditional recipes are not out of the reach of an average cook in his or her own kitchen.

Many prefer to eat their oysters raw, which is truly the only way to appreciate the exquisite saltiness and unique texture of an oyster. Various techniques are employed by those who eat raw oysters, but the most important thing to remember is that they must be ice cold. A room temperature, raw oyster sliding down the throat is likely to cause some degree of revulsion in even the most experienced oyster eater. Therefore, raw oysters are typically served on the half shell, on ice.

Whether or not to add condiments to the raw oyster is completely a matter of taste. Many enjoy their oysters with cocktail sauce, horse radish, or hot sauce. However, purists insist that the best way to enjoy a raw oyster is unadorned, whole, without chewing.

For those who cannot stomach the raw oyster due to the slimy texture or overwhelming saltiness, countless recipes involve cooking oysters in extensive and delicious manners. Oysters may be baked, fried, boiled, grilled, or smoked. Below are two very different cooking techniques that were employed to showcase the oyster's versatility in 2009 at the Falmouth Oyster Festival.

In 2009, Chef Mat Follas, winner of Masterchef 2009, delighted festival attendees with a variety of oyster dishes. One was a steak, stout, and oyster pie. Meat pies are traditionally British dishes that were altered to include seafood in maritime areas such as Cornwall. This particular steak and oyster pie features dozens of oysters baked with chunk steak, vegetables, broth, and an Irish stout in a pastry shell.

The result is a golden pastry filled with soft, salty oysters and chunks of steak which have absorbed the flavours of onions, mushrooms and other vegetables, as well as the subtle sweetness of the stout. It is a comforting, warm, homey dish that is familiar even to those with extremely limited experience with oysters.

Chef Follas also created a smoked oyster dish that was vastly different from the broth laden, baked oysters in the pie. Smoked oysters possess a completely unique flavour that food enthusiasts, especially seafood fans, go wild over. They take on the qualities of the material which they are smoked over, which may be sea grass, apple wood, cedar, grape vine or tea leaves.

The preparation of smoked oysters is exceedingly simple. They must simply by shucked, by separating the two sides of the shell and severing the ligament with a shucking knife, before they are placed above a burning, smoking substance on a grill. The smoke is then absorbed by the oysters' flesh, lending them a delightful, smouldering flavour; warming them; and toning down the slimy and salty qualities.

Smoked oysters may then be served on their own or with condiments. They are often paired with a variety of crackers or small pieces of bread. This is a purist's way to enjoy oysters without going all in for the raw-on-the-half-shell variety.

All in all, Falmouth Oysters are a versatile and delicious way to enjoy Cornish seafood. Falmouth is intractably linked with its maritime history, as demonstrated by the Falmouth Oyster festival, and by the delicious recipes that chefs create in order to showcase Falmouth oysters. There is an oyster dish for everyone, and the people and cooks in Falmouth are making it a point to prove it every October.