|Contestants for the oyster shucking championship on Prince Edward Island. (John Nowlan for The Boston Globe)|
CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island - Liam Dolan knows his oysters. The burly Irishman is the owner of the Claddagh Oyster House, the first oyster bar downtown, and founder of the annual PEI International Shellfish Festival.
``Everyone thought the island tourism season ended on Labor Day," Dolan said, ``but I knew that an international event to celebrate the amazing shellfish in this province would be a hit, no matter when it was held."
Dolan started the festival with about 400 curious - and hungry - tourists in attendance. Marking its 12th year the weekend of Sept. 14-16, it attracts more than 12,000 visitors each September to the Charlottetown waterfront.
The succulent Prince Edward Island oyster is the centerpiece of J.P.'s Shellfish World Invitational Oyster Shucking Championship, the noisiest and most popular event of the three days. Last year's competition drew 22 shuckers, from North America, Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden - several of them former champions. They had to pry open two dozen oysters cleanly and fast in front of a chanting, roaring crowd and present them appealingly on a platter of rock salt.
The finals came down to the local champion, John Bil of Charlottetown, against competitors from Toronto and New England. With keen eyes, sharp knives, and dazzling speed the three finalists wowed the crowd in the giant tent. The winner, William ``Chopper" Young from the Wellfleet Oyster Co. on Cape Cod, presented 24 shucked oysters to the judges in just over two minutes and picked up $2,000 in prize money. Young will be back this month to defend his title.
More money was on the line for another crowd favorite, the Milk International Chowder Championship. Chefs from as far away as Belgium brought their best seafood recipes and prepared gallons of chowder for the judges and samples for the audience. Only PEI seafood could be used, along with other basic ingredients: potatoes, cream, butter, carrots, flour, bacon, local herbs, olive or canola oil, and white wine. Judges awarded points for flavor, appearance, and consistency.
Surprisingly, the best chowder came from land-locked Alberta. Justin Laboissiere of Calgary won the $2,000 first prize along with raves from the judges and the audience. He'll be a judge this year.
A recent addition to the festival is the competitive banquet at the PEI Culinary Institute. This year 18 world-class chefs have been invited to vie for $13,000 in prize money. They'll prepare appetizers and main dishes using PEI shellfish (lobsters, crabs, mussels, clams, scallops, or shrimp).
This year's festival will include a raft of activities to keep seafood lovers fed, entertained, and educated.
Meanwhile, Dolan is looking forward to the day when at least 30,000 visitors come to the festival and it expands to a full week. ``In future years we'd like to add tours of seafood processing plants across the province and place more emphasis on lobsters and crabs," he said.
For now, it's clear that Dolan knows his oysters - and how to put on a tasteful show.
John and Sandra Nowlan, freelance writers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.