It must be said the first time I tried oysters I was far from impressed. I can vividly recollect the shelled creature retracting in horror as someone squeezed a bit of lemon juice and a few drops of Tabasco before handing it to me to shoot back, have a brief chew and swallow. It very nearly came straight back up and I remember making a conscious 12 year-old decision to steer well clear of them in the future. My, how things have changed…
It was this very recipe that changed my mind. Raw oysters are something to be reckoned with for the amateur and I do wonder just how many folk truly enjoy their very first? And for those that are sitting on the bench after their first wad of oyster, how is that these mysterious shellfish make us favour them to the point of putting them on a pedestal as a luxury food item? If my memory serves me correct, they were in fact seen as peasant food in London during the Tudor times.
They certainly hold mystery: Widely regarded as a an aphrodisiac (someone did explain it has to do with how they are eaten- but I think folklore and the fact that the Greek goddess Aphrodite used to ride one is more reliable), If eaten raw and consumed with whisky the two combined can poison us, they filter up to 50 gallons of water a day and some are capable of turning a grain of sand into a pearl. Weird creatures. But then so is the act of swallowing one alive!
It was on a trip down to Devon to stay in a friend’s barn just outside the village of Bigbury, that we went to the rather impressive Oyster shack for Lunch (or Avon Oysters as it was then). Everyone else went for oysters, either grilled or as god intended, so I buckled under peer pressure and tried to put my haunting memories of close regurgitation to the back of my mind. I had them grilled with garlic and Parmesan. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed them so much that I ordered another half dozen.
Since then I have eaten as many oysters as possible in whatever guise they choose to present themselves: as they should be, with Tabasco and lemon, with shallot vinegar, po’boy, Rockefeller, Casino, Fried en croute…they are tasty little morsels indeed. When Clare and I lived in London, we would dress up to the nines (a rarity for myself) once a year and take a few of our hard earned coffers up to Bentley’s Oyster Bar in Piccadilly, to enjoy a few dozen oysters and a bottle of Chablis served to us at the white marble bar by chaps with French accents and white jackets. It certainly made us feel wealthy even though we weren’t!
So naturally I was quite pleased to discover that when Clare moved out to Hossegor to design for a surf company, this sleepy little surf town had its own lake with it’s very own oysters. There is no denying that November out here is quiet, as quiet as a Cornish village in the depths of January, very little is open, the rain squalls, thunderstorms and hail frequently fly in from the Atlantic (not a great time to be living on the beach) and when there is surf that is not the size of a three-storey building: the water is fairly empty…more waves for the floating Englishman on a plank.
Last Saturday, we went to the top of the lake to where the oyster shacks and purification tanks are to pick up a few for lunch. It was a fine morning and at 11am there were already half a dozen contented looking Gauls feasting on oysters at the shack bar and guzzling sparkling wine. We immediately had two choices: The rather crass looking stall with Jerome Labeguerie plastered on it or a sweet old lady hiding underneath a brolly. Ever one to support the underdog, I went up to the little old lady with her 3 crates of different sized oysters and ordered a dozen of the biggest, 7 Euros…what a bargain. The Madame then began gesturing at a painting behind her and then at the lake and then at the oysters and then at us, whilst speaking at lighting speed. I had no idea what she was on about, even Clare, who’s French is virtually fluent, didn’t seem to get it. We said our bon journees, had a brief trot around the lake to see where our lunch had come from and headed home for oysters.
Grilled Oysters with Parmesan and Garlic.
- A dozen fresh oysters
- 2 medium garlic cloves (finely chopped)
- 200g butter
- 1 handful of Parmesan (coarsely grated)
- 2 tbsp of Parsley (finely chopped)
Shuck your oysters, I have only recently purchased a shucking knife and it is well worth it, in the past I have gone with a flat head screwdriver! A useful tip is to stick the oysters in a freezer for five minutes as this makes them easier to open.
Lay the shucked oysters on a shallow baking tray and put a small dollop of the butter mix on each oyster. Place the tray under a grill for 5 minutes until the butter has melted. Take out the tray and sprinkle a generous amount of Parmesan over each oyster and place back under the grill. Once the Parmesan has begun to brown slightly (5-10 minutes), they are ready to be devoured!
Add a sprinkle of parsley as a final flourish, eat with plenty of crusty bread (you will find a nice pool of oyster stock in each shell for dipping) and if you are partial to a little Tabasco…have it on standby.
November out here has been fun, the fridge has been continually stocked with trumpet chanterelles from the generous surrounding woodland, I have been playing with the Basque country’s favourite chili- the Espelette as well as trying to catch squid from the port…unsuccessfully. I am heading back to Blighty at the end of the month for a flurry of Christmas book signings for “The Tree house Diaries”, so if you fancy popping in to say Bonjour or want a quick chinwag, here are some dates and places I will be:
Waterstones Chichester: Thursday 2nd December 11.30- 3
Waterstones Haywards Heath: Friday 3rd December 11.30-3
Waterstones East Grinstead: Saturday 11th December 11.30-3
Wakehurst Place (Kew Sussex): Sunday 12th December 11.30-4
Kew Gardens (Londinium): Thursday 16th December 4pm- 8.30pm