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Video: Watch our reporter take on Belfast Giant Keefe in Oyster eating contest

Our man tries to overcome his phobia but finds oysters hard to swallow as Belfast Giants star Adam Keefe shows him how it’s done

By Christopher Woodhouse

Published 26/08/2016

As the village of Hillsborough gears up for its annual world famous oyster festival I decided it was finally time to brace my gullet and tackle one of my greatest culinary phobias.

With the promise of expert guidance from Adam Keefe, captain of the Belfast Giants, I thought now was as good a time as any to try the slimy, salty so-called delicacy.

Perhaps it’s unfair to single out the relatively well behaved oyster as the Peter Cushing of my food themed nightmares.

It seems to largely keep itself to itself. You rarely hear of any surfers losing a leg or more in a frenzied oyster attack.

Nor does it go out of its way to get eaten; you won’t find an oyster obligingly swimming into a net or leaping for a spangley lure. It has a great deal more self respect.

Rather, I strongly dislike all seafood. The sight, smell or even a brief description on a restaurant menu is all it takes to send my stomach somersaulting like Tom Daley.

You can keep your caviar. Haddock gets no hassle from me. I will never torture a turbot or even try to cajole calamari towards a deep fat fryer.

But my colleagues were adamant that I was giving the oyster too hard a time so, with a suspicion that their claims had more to do with torturing me, I decided to have a punt.

There’s no more apt place to give the luxury dish go than the Co. Down village that makes even the Queen look common – Hillsborough.

For the last 24 years it has been home to the world renowned International Oyster Festival, which is due to slide into gear on Tuesday, August 30 this year.

Christopher Woodhouse Oyster eating. Hillsborough Oyster festival launch. Belfast Giants Adam Keefe at the Plough Inn.
Picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 09-08-2016
Christopher Woodhouse Oyster eating. Hillsborough Oyster festival launch. Belfast Giants Adam Keefe at the Plough Inn. Picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 09-08-2016
Christopher Woodhouse Oyster eating. Hillsborough Oyster festival launch. Belfast Giants Adam Keefe at the Plough Inn. Picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 09-08-2016
Christopher Woodhouse Oyster eating. Hillsborough Oyster festival launch. Belfast Giants Adam Keefe at the Plough Inn. Picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 09-08-2016
Christopher Woodhouse Oyster eating. Hillsborough Oyster festival launch. Belfast Giants Adam Keefe at the Plough Inn. Picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 09-08-2016
Christopher Woodhouse Oyster eating. Hillsborough Oyster festival launch. Belfast Giants Adam Keefe at the Plough Inn. Picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 09-08-2016

The festival is something of a Mecca for fans of the creepy looking shellfish and is the venue for the Turkish Airlines World Oyster Eating Championships, dominated each year by local man Colin Shirlow.

My initiation to them was at The Plough Inn where ice hockey supremo and master oyster shucker – yes, shucker – Adam Keefe was going to convince of the merits of the mollusc.

Shucking an oyster, as Adam explained to me, involves inserting a stubby knife into the “eye” of oyster and twisting, all the time being careful not to cut off too many of your fingers.

Adam was taught the skill by his father back home in Canada and made it look as easy as opening a jar of mustard.

Fortunately my oysters would be well shucked before they reached the table, greatly reducing the risk of self-mutilation.

I know you should never judge a book by its cover and appearances are only skin deep etc, but I think even the oyster would admit it’s not going to win Miss Shellfish UK any time soon.

The ones which were presented to us looked like the toenails of some prehistoric beast with a bad fungal infection.

However, I was assured that we were in for a treat as these were larger than the average ones on offer in up-market restaurants or oyster bars.

But it was only after Adam had deftly demonstrated his shucking skill that I saw an oyster in the flesh for the first time.

As I stood on the pleasant rear terrace of the Plough with a warm August breeze rustling the vines around me I actually started to wonder whether I was the last sane man on Earth.

What was staring back at me looked like somebody with a nasty cold had gobbed into a fancy ashtray.

This is considered a delicacy? Mr Shirlow can eat 253 of them in three minutes? I must have been shucked into some sort of Twilight zone. And then Adam ate one.

Apparently my poorly concealed wincing and gagging at a seemingly normal man slurping down a bowl full of phlegm was hilarious.

Before long the plate of shucking oysters had been sucked away via Adam, the photographer (who I always thought was a little strange) and the oyster festival promoters.

All of them assured me how delicious they were. Then it was time for me to have a go.

Fortunately a pint of Guinness was brought down as the two are meant to compliment one another, which is like saying Danny Dyer and Pippa Middleton would make a lovely couple.

Soon two plates with half a dozen of the brutes on board were brought down and set before me and Adam.

His advice was took to pick one which had plenty of water still in it which would make it easier to slide into my mouth so I gingerly grasped a shell with plenty of grey fluid still washing around.

The outside feels like the cold damp rocks at the beach with a faint whiff of the sea coming off the contents.

A colleague had told me there wouldn’t be a supermarket fish counter style pong and that swallowing one was like taking a big gulp of seaside air.

I focused on this as I lifted the broad end of the shell up to my lips and tipped the contents stomachwards.

First the salty soup hits your tongue with the snot-like overcoat from the meat hot on its heels.

Despite every nerve in my body tensing in concert in a bid to reject this I managed to force it down but then the meaty oval came tumbling down like a fat, corpse grey cashew nut.

As soon as this bounced onto the back of my throat my body gave a huge involuntary spasm like the flinch when somebody throws a fake dig at you.

The brain was trying but the body decided it was not on.

I was determined to get at least one down so I grabbed frantically at the pint of Guinness and threw it into me.

Fortunately this familiar liquid fooled my body into letting the whole rotten mess go down. It was exhausting.

After I had recovered and the assembled group had stopped laughing Adam convinced me to try a second, this time with lemon juice. It didn’t help.

After a second humiliating bout of retching and gagging I had had enough and left the others to finish the rest.

Ben, one of the Plough’s waiters, was offered a go and he knocked it back with delight.

When I asked him what he thought the enjoyable aspect of it was he explained that it was all a “bit of craic”. Indeed.

Adam went further, recalling that in his experience there are people who crave them and seek them out.

I will leave the craic and the cravings to the crowds at the oyster festival.

The Hillsborough Oyster Festival August 30 to Sept 3.

Online Editors

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