Gastropod

The official oyster season is in full spate, and last week a crowd of enthusiasts gathered at Cafe Fish in Panton Street, north London, to witness the British Oyster Opening Championship, sponsored by Tabasco. Since the reigning champion, Armando Lima, formerly of Green's, has retired to his native Spain, the field was wide open.

A dozen contestants, from London's most prestigious oyster bars, were presented with 30 elongated, frilly-shelled Irish oysters, imported from Cork for the occasion. The objective was to 'shuck' them (open the shell and detach the oyster) as quickly as possible, with penalty points for poor presentation.

After a lengthy wait, during which there was heated debate as to whether the sponsor's hot pepper sauce improves the delicate flavour of oysters or masks it, and whether farmed Irish oysters are inferior to natives (The Gastropod, controversially, decided 'yes' and 'no' respectively), the results were announced.

The new British Oyster Opening Champion is Sam Tamsanguan, a Thai who has worked at Wilton's for 10 years. He shucked his 30 oysters in two minutes, 16 seconds. Mr Tamsanguan (who eats no more than half a dozen oysters a year, just to try them) said the secret of his success was in the wrist action and his unerring ability to find the hinge. He will now represent Britain in the World Championships in Galway later this month.

NEWS THAT, after long negotiations with Hammersmith and Fulham council, the renowned River Cafe (071-381 8824) is to be allowed to open on Saturday nights (as long as the premises are vacated by 11pm) is a timely reminder of the comparative novelty of robust, rustic, so- called 'new wave' Italian cookery. Was it just the year before last that the River Cafe was the only place in London to eat bruschetta, polenta and char-grilled vegetables?

Now such delights are so commonplace that even Forte, the country's largest catering corporation, is getting in on the act. Its half-dozen Distinctive Restaurants have been restyled and relaunched with menus by the 26-year-old group head chef, Marco Giordano.

Not only is the food at these establishments a great improvement on spag bol, but the coffee they serve - in all the traditional Italian variations such as ristretto (thimble-sized and intensely strong), corretto (with a jigger of alcohol), and macchiato (with a touch of milk) - is the real thing.

In a promotion in conjunction with Lavazza coffee, readers carrying this copy of the Independent can claim a free dessert and coffee when eating a full meal at any of the following Distinctive Restaurants (081-847 6060): Issimo] in Lime Street, London EC3, Opera Terrazza] in Covent Garden, Tutto] in Paddington, Scarto] in Pimlico, Fresco] in Queen Victoria Street, EC4, and the less startling Cafe Italien in Charlotte Street.

IN ALTRINCHAM, Cheshire, a weekly organic food and flower market opens on Thursday in the old covered market. The brainchild of Elizabeth M Taylor, who is behind the successful Sunday market at Spitalfields in London, this is the first link in a projected chain of markets around the country. While other sites are being negotiated, the Spitalfields market is to become a daily event from 25 September.

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