My first memory of oysters comes from a day spent on the beach near Auckland in New Zealand. I was nine years old and happily crouched over a rock pool tickling the fronds of anemones when I noticed my father prise a knobbly shell off a rock. He then split it open with his penknife, tipped his head back, and swallowed the contents. I was amazed. “What was that?” I asked. “It’s an oyster,” he replied. I was none the wiser. “But you ate it just like that… raw?” I was horrified at the idea. “Yes, even better raw,” he replied. “I love it when they wriggle going down my throat.” My response was to scream.
The idea was so ghastly that, as a result, my father – without meaning to – put me off oysters for the next twenty-five years. It was somewhat similar to his attempt to get me to swim which involved throwing me in the deep end (aged five) and assuming that I would somehow paddle my way to the edge of the pool (like his dog). Result, I avoided swimming lessons in the same way that I avoided oysters whenever they appeared on the menu.
My day of reckoning with the Ostreidae family came many years later. To be precise, two husbands and three sons later, I was in Brighton organising a conference for the Arts Council on television and the arts which involved working with the great and the good of both industries – or, if I’m being unkind, the egos and the super-egos! It was a working dinner and of the Great & Good around my table, no one could believe that I had never tasted an oyster. A combination of embarrassment and a determination to overcome my fear got the better of me – I ordered six oysters. They arrived on a bed of crushed ice, their pearly shells frilled with cream coloured flesh. I opted for a simple squeeze of lemon, loosened the flesh from the shell (trying hard not to think about it still being alive), and tipped the contents into my mouth.
Whoosh! Wow! Whoosh! It was a mouthful of nutty sweetness mixed with ocean waves. My tongue tingled, my taste buds exploded – it was love at first mouthful. I sat there lost in taste, forgetting the people around me, forgetting the conversation – and regretting it had taken nearly twenty-five years to overcome my phobia.
Like all late converts, I then indulged as often as I could afford to, and embarked on a mission to ensure my children would never suffer the same problem. Tom, aged six, took to oysters like a duck to water – if that’s possible. Aged seven, his birthday treat (at his request) was to buy seven oysters from the local fishmonger – and one of my birthday presents that year included an oyster knife. But second son Harry could barely bring himself to eat fish fingers, let alone raw oysters. I know when to give up, so for the next twenty or so years I indulged Harry’s carnivorous tastes with steaks and roasts.
But last year, after a series of huge family Christmas gatherings, I found myself facing the rare luxury of a Christmas here in Albi with Harry. Just the two of us. No last-minute trips to the supermarket, no sweating in front of an oven, no dishing up for ten or more. We would celebrate it French-style with the main meal on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would be a chilled day, snacking on left-overs and catching up on our favourite films.
I planned a traditional French Christmas Eve meal – oysters to start, followed by a roast capon, and then a buche de Noël from Monsieur Belin. But the oysters presented me with a problem – it seemed rather selfish to eat them in front of a non-fish eater. I called Harry to discuss the problem and he confessed he’d recently developed a taste for ‘turf and surf’ – namely, a good steak accompanied by cooked scallops. A compromise was in sight. I proposed six oysters au nature for me and six oysters gratinée for Harry. In the spirit of compromise and Christmas, he accepted the challenge.
Here in Albi, we’re lucky to have a dedicated oyster-monger in the Marché Couverte who tends to stock oysters from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic – les Marénne-Oléron, les Bouzigues, and les Fine de Claire. I bought 12 Fines de Claire No. 2 plus a few extra just in case – the reason being that if an oyster is slightly open or suspiciously easy to open, you must discard it.
Oysters au Nature, for two people, as a starter. Preparation time, 15 minutes.
A dozen oysters
To serve you will need:
1 lemon, quartered
fine thin slices of rye bread
If you want to add all the paraphernalia of chopped shallots in vinegar, Tabasco sauce etc. you can, but I never bother!
The trick with opening oysters is to hold them nestled in a thick tea towel in your left hand and, using a very sharp oyster knife or a very short-bladed kitchen knife, pierce the shell at the ‘hinge’ and prise it open. Sounds simple, doesn’t it. But this is the point where you’re likely to lose hope. Bits of shell flake off, the knife grinds away into the shell, producing grit – but no movement. Don’t despair! Keep insisting and work the point of the knife slowly into the hinge. Patience is key. There will be a moment when there’s a slight movement, and you can see water emerge from the shells. Now ease the knife round the edge until you can separate the two shells. The top flat shell is discarded (but do save any small bits of flesh for a ‘cook’s nibble). Drain off the water and then make sure there are no bits of shell/grit in the bottom curved shell. I plunge them briefly in a bowl of cold salted water or you can brush off any grit/shell with a small brush.
Place on a serving plate, on a bed of crushed ice (My tip: two trays of ice cubes placed in a sealed plastic bag, covered with a thick towel and attacked with a rolling pin). You can leave the oysters to sit for at least an hour before serving if you’re busy (as I was) juggling the last-minute preparations for the roast.
Oysters Gratinée, for two people, as a starter. Preparation time, 30 minutes.
A dozen oysters
1 glass of dry white wine
Juice of half a lemon
100 ml of thick cream
dry breadcrumbs (I cheat and buy a packet)
1 kg of rough sea salt.
To serve you will need:
fine thin slices of rye bread
Pre-heat the grill to medium high.
To cook the oysters you will either need a flat metal tray with 1 kg of rough salt spread over the tin to keep them level, or you can do what I did, which is to balance each shell in a 12 hole jam tart tray.
Open the oysters as above, but make sure this time to keep the water you drain off (sieve it and put in a small jug). Leave them to sit on a large flat tray while you do the sauce.
Finely chop the shallots, then put into a small saucepan with the wine and the lemon juice. Add the strained oyster water, then boil rapidly for 3 minutes to reduce the liquid. Then lower the temperature and slowly, pour in the cream, while whisking the sauce.
Remove from the heat and set aside. You now need to drain the oysters (they’ll have made more oyster ‘juice’) and loosen each oyster from its shell. Place the oysters in their shells on the bed of salt or balance them in the tart tray. With a large spoon, ladle the sauce over each oyster, and finish with a layer of breadcrumbs and a generous sprinkling of pink peppercorns.
Place under the pre-heated grill for around 4-5 minutes until the topping has turned golden and slightly crisp. At which point, they’re ready to serve.
If you haven’t used the salt option, you will have to lift the shells onto a plate – entirely possible, but be warned, the shells do get very hot.
In the end, I settled for three oysters au nature simply because I wanted to taste the gratinée version, which were excellent. Harry enjoyed them as much as me – a perfect Christmas compromise!
As for my fear of swimming, that too, took me a good few decades to master. In my mid-thirties, I finally learned how to swim properly. I’m now as addicted to swimming as I am to oysters. If there is an after-life, please can I come back as a dolphin.