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Postcard Two- The Odyssey abounds apace; and with added Grandeur

Date Created: 02 June 2012

Shucks, carnival atmosphere and oysters- a recipe for delight

....Having spent a tranquil night in an exquisitely decorated rented cottage and woken to the sound of the sea lapping on the rocks below, I leave this friendly island and travel to the town of Grebbestad. Here I board a traditional timber yacht skippered by Per Karlsson and his brother Lars who’ve invited me to an oyster safari and lunch in their family’s fishing hut. Cruising via oyster beds where divers in deep sea gear are picking wild oysters from the sea bed, I learn that Per and Lars are not only oyster connoisseurs but also champion oyster openers. This afternoon, back in Grebbestad, they are due to attend the annual Nordic Championships in Oyster Opening and after consuming more champagne and oysters, I decide to join them.

Although opening oysters doesn’t sound like much of a spectator sport, the event turns out to be a seafood version of the Olympics. Held in Greby’s Restaurant on the quayside, the event has attracted an enthusiastic audience who wave national flags, quaff locally brewed Grebbestad Granit beer and scoff platefuls of seafood. On a stage, beneath blazing spot lights, legions of chefs are battling it out. The rules are simple. They must open thirty oysters in the shortest possible time, without drawing blood or damaging the oyster and points are awarded for presentation....

Pounding rock music shakes the rafters and the atmosphere is electric. Competing in groups of four, the chefs possess pop star charisma. The master of ceremonies, a mafia boss look-alike with glossy black hair, booms into a microphone and whisks the crowd up into a frenzy of anticipation. Wearing expressions ranging from calm concentration to sweaty exertion, the chefs shuck their hearts out until only four finalists, a Norwegian, a Dane, a Fin and a Swede, remain. When they step on stage for the final confrontation, deafening applause is followed by tense silence.

Heini from Norway, a hot contender, makes a theatrical show of shucking. He finishes first with a triumphant flourish only to discover he’s incurred a thirty second penalty for allowing the meat to fall out of an oyster. His face falls and his hands fly up in despair knowing that his rival, the Swede Hasse Johannesson, has been crowned oyster opening supremo.

At the end of this surprisingly exhilarating competition, I unexpectedly discover just how difficult it is to open an oyster. Together with three other unsuspecting tourists, I’ve been lured on stage to give it a try. Despite receiving expert tutelage, I realise this requires real skill. Once out of the water, live oysters tend to shut themselves tight with a powerful muscle and the three I’m attempting to prize open have definitely put up the barricades. Like most inexperienced shuckers, I dispense with technique and resort to brute force. I’ve already seen pools of blood on the floor and plastered fingers belonging to the professionals. Unwilling to become a sea food martyr, I concede defeat.

Although our last day turns out to be mollusk free, the entertainment continues. I stay overnight in the coastal town of Fjallbacka where the Stora Hotellet has amusingly decorated each of its 23 rooms in honour of explorers and ports all over the world. In the midst of the gingerbread houses overlooking a pretty harbour, a bust of Ingrid Bergman stands centre stage. The actress spent her summers in a cabin at Dannholmen in the beautiful Fjallbacka archipelago and is fondly by the locals. And when we move on to the island of Marstrand to visit Carlsten’s Fortress, it appears her dramatic legacy lives on.

The often gruesome history of this forbidding castle is related to us by a handsome young man clad in period costume comprising armour, lacy cuffs, tricorn hat and at his side, a heavy sword. Executing a deep bow, this earnest thespian whisks off the hat and introduces himself as the Master of the Guard. During his theatrical tales of captivity, deprivation and torture, he brandishes his sword explaining how such a blade would have been used for executions. This action serves to remind me of the Bard’s words in The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘Why, then the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.’

I may be useless at opening oysters and using a sword would be out of the question. But in the course of exploring this ravishing Swedish landscape, I’ve learned to appreciate their unique gastronomic qualities and now the oyster is my world.

Written by Beverley Byrne.

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