Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Though we have yet to travel very far west of Poitiers, toward the sea, the piles of cheap oysters for sale may be the surest sign that saltwater is only a quick (high speed) train ride away. In the case of Poitiers, we could take the train in one of three directions to prime oyster country: south to Marseilles and the Mediterranean coast, west to the Bay of Biscay, or north to the English Channel. At the Saturday market, we have found oysters available from the first two locations, and since France is the largest harvester of oysters outside of the Far East, there is an ample selection in terms of size as well as origin. The South is comprised of one growing region, but the West contains four (South Brittany, Central West, Marennes-Oléron, and Arachon). Regardless of origin, oyster sizes seem to range from the size of your palm to the size of a saucer.

After being in the Midwest, living in the midst of such an abundant selection of fish and shellfish is not something that we will soon forget. The sheer variety, not to mention the nonchalance with which the fishmongers clean, prep, package, and sell this seafood makes it seem dream-like. For normal people like us, the reality of preparing and cooking fish is not a fairytale: there are a lot of new rules and a LOT of ways you can screw up (cooking it too long, not cooking it long enough, not knowing how to open the shells, not using the meat in time...remember the soupe de poissons disaster?). Nevertheless, we only passed up the oyster vendors a few times before we bought our first dozen La Rochelle oysters, a little over a month ago.
Since the oysters are so cheap and plentiful, we knew we would be eating them often. So, as soon as we got home from the market we went looking for a proper oyster knife. A good oyster knife is fairly dull, short and stiff with a thick handle. The local highfalutin kitchen supply store (think Williams Sonoma with a tenth of the floor space) sells lots of nice of knives and other kitchen tools, and they had a pretty serious oyster knife for sale. Too bad it was almost $40. We weren't going to have anyone over for dinner that we needed to impress, so we went to the grocery store and got a $6 knock-off (the bottom one in the picture). Since the holidays are when most oysters are consumed, the fancy kitchen store decided to stock a more moderately price $10 knife (the upper one in the pictures) that was a big improvement over our previous one (note the much thicker blade).
After watching a few youtube videos about opening oysters, Jeff went to work. The first one took around 5 minutes, with lots of grunting and swear words. Once he figured out a systematic, albeit still slow, way of opening them, the rest went much faster. This method is called the sidedoor method, and is better if your knife is sharper and thinner. The upgraded knife was stiff enough to open the oysters in the traditional manner, by attacking the hinge first and then working your way around the shell and cutting the adductor muscle that holds the top of the shell closed.

Wanting to truly taste the oysters, we decided to eat them raw along with some other hors d'oeuvres. Besides some toasted slices of baguette, there was butter with shallots, lemons, avocados, three kinds of goat cheese, and roasted beets.
The picture at the top of this post was our second batch of oysters that we decided to bake in the oven with bacon and leeks. It turned out really well, the creaminess of the sauce combined with the saltiness of the oysters and bacon was really tasty.

Of course the oyster experience is not complete (at least not in France) without wine (dry, white) or champagne. Guess where we went to get the wine. Normally we go to William to ask for wine that breaks the stereotypes of what certain wines are supposed to go with, but this time, he urged us to go the more traditional route for this most traditional of French meals.

While France has been harvesting oysters for hundreds of years and has a lot of regulations in place ensuring the sustainability of the oyster beds, there have been two cases of infections (one, and two) in the last few months which are wreaking havoc on oyster production in the Atlantic. Hopefully, the areas of oyster production in France not hit by these maladies will be able to meet demand. Actually, the slump caused by the infections has brought about a surge in harvesting, which will temporarily result in a surplus here. More (and cheaper) oysters for us! So we will definitely be trying them again.

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