Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I'll never forget my first taste of oysters in France. I had eaten oysters a few times in Canada, but they had always travelled too far to have any life left in them. Then I moved to France and spent a few days in Brittany, where I visited the fishing town of Cancale in the Mont St-Michel bay, home of genius chef Olivier Roellinger. I didn't have the means to eat in his restaurant (and have still never made it there, though it's high up on my list), so found a simple café by the sea with wooden benches and a super-speedy oyster shucker. In seconds a dozen oysters were placed before us with a few lemon halves for squeezing on top.
As the lemon juice hit the oyster it positively jumped, contracting in reaction to the acidity. Now, this might make some people squeamish, but to me this is what an oyster should be: barely out of the sea and fully alive. The texture was silky and the taste like a concentrated and clean essence of seawater. No oyster experience has lived up to that one since - I think Paris is too urban for oysters and in Nice the bracing wind is missing - but last week's oysters on the Ile de Ré came a close second. There were several oyster stands at the market in St-Martin de Ré and the one that appealed to me the most was that of Frédéric Voisin, who is based near the town of Loix. What caught my eye were his huîtres plates, flat oysters that are native to France but have been largely replaced by the creuses, which originated in Japan.
As we bought a dozen of these oysters, Frédéric gave us a few tips. Flat oysters should be opened at their tip, he said, by digging a small knife below the lightly curved shell to cut the hinge. On the Ile de Ré they use a special knife which does not have the traditional metal handguard between the blade and the handle. "When you're opening an oyster it's your other hand that's at risk," explained Frédéric. "With the handguard there is more chance that you will press too hard and cut into your opposite hand." He also told us to empty out the première eau, the first water, from the oyster as we opened it and wait a few seconds for it to release new, cleaner water. "The impurities are in the first water," he said. If bits of shell got into the oyster, he advised rinsing it with mineral water.
Armed with Frédéric's knife and instructions, Philippe skilfully opened the oysters back at the house. If these oysters were not quite as lively as those in Cancale, they did have the clean, pure taste I had sought all these years. Flat oysters are stronger in taste than creuses, but these were by no means overwhelming, just beautifully intense. With pain au levain, salted butter and a bottle of chilled Muscadet, it would be hard to ask for more.
Le Grouin, 17111 Loix-en-Ré, 05 46 43 51 38.
Frédéric ships his oysters anywhere in France and to several European countries.