Shelling out

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 11, 2015


Naintara Maya Oberoi   -  BUSINESS LINE

Oysters, dead or alive, are having a revival everywhere

“When does an oyster die?”

I was at Le Mary Celeste, a hipster oyster bar, when this morbid question arose. “Are they… alive?” I hissed, pausing before my plate of fresh-shucked bivalves, glistening on a bed of ice, with a two-pronged fork atop them like a murder weapon. “Don’t they die out of water?” asked my friend.

Google revealed that if stored properly, oysters can survive out of water for days.

“They’re alive when you shuck them,” said my companion, now also on Google. “But without a beating heart, it’s hard to know when it, er, stops beating.”

Dead or alive, oysters are enjoying a revival; blogs and magazines are applauding them for being raw, sustainable, mineral-rich protein sources, which filter the sea they live in.

The buzz has even reached France, where people never stopped eating the little bivalves at all, and where buzzwords like ‘raw’ and ‘low-carb’ are amusing Anglicisms (and such American notions as rinsing, or worse — pasteurising — are offensive).

Originally poor people’s fare, oysters are not considered a rare treat or a glamorous extravagance; in winter an oyster man stands opening them for passers-by at most street corners. They’re eaten here (over 1.8 billion a year) as they always have been — on the street, on the seaside, at Christmas, at parties, or as a light lunch, washed down with white wine.

Last November, I went to a birthday party in the countryside, where two of the guests had driven down from Brittany with buckets of oysters. The morning after, we awoke to find them outside the kitchen door in their wellies, chirpily shucking the molluscs into a flowerpot while everyone else looked hung over and clustered around the coffee. I went out, in coat and pyjamas, and was given a craggy half-shell, of the plat type common to Brittany. It was my first time eating them really ‘au naturel’, without even a squeeze of lemon. Someone brought out the previous night’s leftover white wine and champagne, and suddenly, it became the most luxe breakfast ever: cold, salty, plump, and perfect in the morning sun.

And now that it was oyster season again, I wasn’t about to let academic inquiries into the meaning and length of a mollusc’s life stop me from enjoying dinner.

Le Mary Celeste is named for a mysterious brigantine ship whose crew vanished into thin air. It looks like a Pinterest board for ‘urban oyster bar’, the spare nautical theme reflected in whitewashed brick, rope, a white chevron parquet ceiling, and the hipster-pirate beards of the clientele.

Today they were serving two kinds of oysters from the Marennes-Oléron — Pousses en Claire °3 and Speciales de Claire °3 — and Special Verneuils °3s, from Normandy. We ordered our first round, and a Muskadig Breizh, a natural white wine, to go with them.

Most oysters today in France are the tear-shaped Pacific rock kind, as the native belons or Ostrea edulis become less and less common. They are classified according to size, from the huge °00s to the delicate °6s, and how long they are ripened in the claires, or salt ponds. Their texture and flavour are affected by the minerals, sediments, salinity, temperature and tides of the water they lounge in, not to mention their plankton and algae bedfellows. Oyster fans can argue for hours over whether the Arcachon huitres, first babied among terracotta tiles and then pushed into the deep Arcachon Bay to fatten, are better than the flinty, metallic belons grown in brackish water, or whether the dark-rimmed Marennes-Oléron trumps them all.

Ignoring Google, I took one of the gnarly, green-spattered Olérons, detached the little hinge muscle with my fork, slid the succulent, mineral-ly little thing into my mouth, and drank up the brine.

The prized Olérons are raised in ponds along with a special mix of salt and fresh water, and algae; Verneuils are delicate deep-sea oysters. The Olérons were a little fattier, but that was all the difference I could discern between them. The next ones got the benefit of the spicy, Tabasco-licked, Asian-inspired mignonette sauce, which made everything simultaneously fatty and fiery, fleshy and acidic.

I thought about my first time eating oysters, four years ago in Paris, at the Cabane à Huitres. The bare-bones oyster ‘cabin’ has no menu, and they don’t ask what you want — just how many. “Two dozen, or four?” said the brawny man behind the counter. He lined up 24 Arcachon oysters, along with brown bread, wedges of lemon, and a bottle of icy white wine. They smelt unmistakably as if they’d just left the sea, spilling over with natural brine. Despite having Googled ‘oysters’ the entire afternoon, I was shocked at their succulence, and at just how oceanic they tasted.

Back at the Mary Celeste, as my oyster gratin arrived, I thought of the silly rhyme, ‘I prefer my oysters fried/ That way I know the oyster’s died’. These Creuses from Brittany had risen to new, cheesy-salty heights, baked till the edges of the mollusc began to curl, in a toasty brown-butter-hollandaise sauce, spiked with jalapeños, and generously sprinkled with scallions and coriander.

But then I ordered another plate of the raw ones, because we were both thinking about those single bursts of luscious flavour, what MFK Fisher calls the oyster’s “strange cold succulence.” We finished the night with those, each one like the slick wash of the sea, concentrated, then quickly gone.

Naintara Maya Oberoi (@naintaramaya) is a food writer based in Paris

Published on December 11, 2015
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