“Oysters are an ancient food,” says Aisling Kelly Hunter, who owns and operates Sligo Oyster Experience. “They’re really good for you, they’re good for the environment and they help us tell the story of Sligo.”
These days, telling stories is the key to hospitality endeavours. Visitors are no longer content with a quick visit, or reading something from a plaque. They want a story to bring home with them. Aisling is passionate about the history of shellfish in her native Sligo, and she feels their story can help highlight her home town.
“6000 years ago, the reason people settled in Sligo is because of the abundance of shellfish and fish,” she tells Irish Country Living. “Archaeologists have found shell evidence all over Co Sligo. In fact, the Gaelic name for Sligo is Sligeach, which means ‘abounding in shells’, or ‘shelly place.’”
The family business
Growing up, Aisling and her siblings spent time collecting cockles and mussels on the beach to eat at home. Aisling’s family lived above their pub - The Punchbowl - in Sligo town. During secondary school, she couldn’t wait to get out and see the world but also hoped to one day own her own business.
“Once I got out of school, I studied in Sligo for a couple of years and then went to San Francisco for a year and a half. Then I finished the remainder of my studies (which were in business) in Edinburgh. After that, I worked in travel for years,” she says.
Her work brought her to different locations around the world and, eventually, back to Irish soil, where she provided educational group travel experiences in Dublin. Sadly, though, an event would take place which would bring her back home to Sligo.
“My dad passed away in 2014 and I was very close with him,” she pauses. “And the pub was empty; it had most recently been rented out as a restaurant. I was trying to let it. My mom was here and I just said, ‘Sure, I’ll give [running a café] a go.’”
And so, The Punchbowl pub became WB’s Coffee House (the café is opposite to Sligo’s WB Yeats statue), and Aisling realised her dream of being a business owner.
“The freaky thing is - and I always think this is Dad looking out for me - I gave my notice to my employers [in Dublin] on the Wednesday, and I met Glenn (my now husband) on the Friday,” she smiles. “I met Glenn and asked, ‘What do you do?’ And he said, ‘I’m an oyster farmer.’ I said, ‘What? Sligo has oysters on farms?!’”
Glenn’s father had started their family’s oyster farm (Coney Island Oyster Farm) in Sligo Bay in 1989 with his business partner, Noel Carter. After a few months of dating, he took Aisling to visit the farm and she was completely blown away.
“It was probably my tourism background, but I was just thinking about its story and the connection to Sligo and its history - it was just a dream for me.”
Aisling continued her work in the café, but a spark for oysters had been ignited. When her husband bought a hatch to sell oysters at the Fleadh Cheoil, which was held in Sligo in 2014-15, they both realised the potential to diversify their business.
“From that, people started asking him to do weddings and corporate events, so we knew then there was something to it,” she explains. “I had a storeroom in the coffee shop and turned it into a place to do tastings. Then I decided to put up photos [of the oyster farm]. Then I said I’d do a video! And it just kind of went from there.”
An oyster experience
During tastings, her guests would always say the same thing: “I’d love to go and see the farm.” Aisling approached Noel and asked if he would be interested in doing tours. He said yes, and they officially launched Sligo Oyster Experience in August of 2020 (yes…that 2020).
“Right in the middle of COVID!” Aisling laughs. “But I thought if I just get this started – I can get it up and running and learn, because nothing’s perfect when you first start out. But it’s actually gone really well.”
Her oyster farm tours are seasonal (the weather is generally too messy during winter months), but Aisling offers year-round oyster tastings at the café. During the summer, the tastings are combined with the oyster farm tour. She says the majority of her participants are from North America.
“North Americans are more comfortable with oysters because they eat a lot of them,” she says matter-of-factly. “Irish people - I think because they were exported for so long - we don’t eat that many yet, but I think that’s all changing.”
Irish Country Living suggests that perhaps it’s the legendary “bad oyster” which makes people wary about trying them. She laughs, saying that is a very outdated idea.
“Often, when someone says they got sick ‘from an oyster’, they might have also had five pints, so who’s to say?” She jokes. “But no, years ago, oysters weren’t purified whereas now they are – and that means you are much less likely to get sick from an oyster. And when you’re buying them direct, you have full traceability.”
A big part of Aisling’s work is in educating clients on how to store and prepare oysters. She recently launched a nationwide delivery service for her Sligo Oyster Experience boxes, which include fresh, live oysters, a shucking knife, a bottle of wine (or champagne, if you choose that option), hot sauce, a lemon, a red onion and – most importantly – a booklet giving complete instructions on how to store, shuck and prepare oysters.
“Beginners see the shucking as a bit of fun, but then a lot of people just don’t know what to do with them,” Aisling explains. “People are gobsmacked when I tell them that live oysters will last up to ten days in the fridge. I mean, they have to be refrigerated, they have to be looked after - and that’s really important - but once people understand what a fresh oyster is, I think they get more confident.”
Aisling’s ultimate goal is to have everyone in Ireland revere and enjoy oysters the same way they are enjoyed in other countries.
“If you’re going to a dinner party, maybe you’re not a great cook – but if you arrive with a box of oysters, a shucking knife, a lemon and some sauce, it’s always a showstopper,” she says. “People stop and take a few photos, then they always have the same conversation: when they had their last oyster, if it’s their first oyster, who they were with when they last had oysters, and where they were – they always remember, and I love that.”
And it’s that experience – that dopamine-inducing element of shucking oysters and sharing them with friends and family – which Aisling believes can make Sligo the oyster destination she feels it has always been.
“My husband always says that a good product sells itself,” she muses. “I think the oysters were sitting there, waiting. They just needed someone to lift them up and show them off.”
To find out more about Sligo Oyster Experience visit sligooysterexperience.ie