Oh, oysters, I've never ceased to hold them dear. One tires of morels and truffles, the same for poultry. I do not think one could ever tire of oysters. —Léon Daudet (1867-1942)
Those pesky months without an “r” are gone, and oysters are back in town. Throughout France, you’ll find them on restaurant menus, displayed in front of brasseries, in seafood markets and at grocery stores.
The French love oysters. They harvest some 130,000 tons each year, making France the largest producer in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. Nearly all are consumed domestically, and almost all are eaten on the half shell. Cocktail sauce and horseradish are unheard of—the most dressing a French oyster gets is a splash of sauce mignonette, a simple concoction of red wine vinegar and minced shallots, sometimes showered with black pepper. Traditional as it is, sauce mignonette is anathema to purists, who consider it sacrilegious to pollute a pristine oyster with anything at all, even a fresh spritz of lemon. They eat them just as they are, with thin slices of rye bread and unsalted butter intended to prepare the palate for the next oyster. And, bien sûr, a chilled glass of Entre-Deux-Mers or other Sau-vignon Blanc.
This national passion extends to the nation’s top chefs, who love experimenting with the briny bivalves. Anne-Sophie Pic, at Maison Pic in Valence, pairs them with heirloom apples in aspic and adds a touch of walnut wine chutney. Guy Savoy, at his famed three-star restaurant in Paris, is renowned for his huîtres en nage glacée, which he calls the “oyster with the oyster.” He places a puréed oyster in a half shell, tops it with a whole oyster, then covers it with a jelly made from pure oyster juice along with some sorrel, lemon juice and pepper. Also in Paris, Pascal Barbot of L’Astrance serves oysters lightly warmed with beets and camembert, while Alain Dutournier of Carré des Feuillants combines them with sweetbreads and grilled veal kidneys.
French chefs tend to favor certain oyster-growing regions and even cultivate relations with specific producers. Like wine, oysters reflect the terroir, or area where they are cultivated. As they filter water for sustenance, the local flora and fauna combine with other factors—such as the water’s temperature, depth and color—to give them their unique characteristics. Each of the five major areas of oyster production (Normandy, Brittany, the Loire, Arcachon Bay and the Mediterranean) can claim a loyal following, and even small locales such as Gillardeau, Paimpol and St. Vaast have their die-hard fans.
The year-end holidays are just one excuse for the French to indulge. Cases are shipped throughout the country, and the sidewalks fill with people carrying home huge, icy trays of shucked oysters, ceremoniously wrapped and beribboned. One recent year found truckers striking just before the holidays, bringing oyster-lovers—and the oyster industry—to their knees. Another featured a daring oyster heist—one night, thousands of cases disappeared from a loading dock without a trace. The event threatened the nation’s happiness and made headlines for days as speculation about the fate of the stolen shellfish preoccupied the national consciousness.
Oysters have been part of the French diet for centuries. Since Roman times, they have been farmed in the Lagune de Thau, in the Mediterranean, and in the Bay of Arcachon. Then, the only species available was the plate, or flat oyster (Ostrea edulis), more commonly known as the Belon. The flat oyster had French waters to itself until 1868, when a Portuguese vessel, its hold filled with oysters, docked in the estuary of the Gironde river to wait out a storm. By the time the weather had cleared, the boat captain was sure the oysters were dead and ordered them thrown overboard. Since oysters are hardy and carry everything they need to live inside their shell, there were survivors. This new variety, with its distinctive convex shell (hence the term creuse), thrived on the local algae and multiplied with shocking rapidity.
Like an eager immigrant, the vervy, fast-growing and easy-to-farm portugaise (Crassostrea angulata) soon took over its elegant, slow-growing host, becoming the mainstay of the French oyster industry. Then in the 1970s, a mysterious disease nearly wiped out the population. Enter the japonaise (Crassostrea gigas). Not only was it disease resistant, it was so similar to its Portuguese cousin that it easily filled the void. The French never looked back, and the japonaise is now the star of the French oyster industry. The plate, with a meager production of about 1,500 tons a year, has become its rare, exotic sidekick.
The plate’s paucity is due to its fragile nature and slow growth. It remains, however, the oyster lover’s oyster. Its dense, slightly metallic and somewhat challenging flavor is ultimately satisfying, calling up nostalgic images of misty Breton shores and the clanking of small boats as they dock to unload their catch. Indeed, although they are raised in a few other coastal areas, plates are primarily linked with Brittany. When they are three years old and fully mature, they are transferred to an estuarial environment, typically the mouth of the Belon or Marenne rivers, where fresh and salt water blend. There, their golden flesh firms and the shellfish attain their full wild flavor.
The creuse is everyman’s oyster. Its flavor is easy, fresh and sprightly, evoking bracing sea breezes and restoratively salty sea water, with an occasional buttery, nutty aftertaste. It is raised in deep waters, then transferred to less salty shallow beds called claires to mature. It is typically a pale ivory lined with black and brown, though some attain a gorgeous celadon to turquoise green, due to their contact with a bluish-green algae, the navicule bleue. Although less intensely flavored than the plate, the creuse is equally seductive.
For true oyster lovers, there’s really nothing better than tucking into a dozen on the half-shell at a seaside bistro, where you can look out and see the sparkling waters the shellfish were plucked from just hours before. One of my personal coastal favorites is Les Vapeurs (160 quai Fernand Moureaux; Tel. 33/2-31-88-15-24) in Trouville-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast. Built in 1927, this handsome brasserie serves oysters from nearby Isigny, which are known for their wonderful nutty taste.
But if you can’t get to the coast, don’t fret. Paris’s brasseries and oyster bars have a charm all their own and offer the added bonus of allowing aficionados the opportunity to sample varieties shipped in from throughout the country. One popular spot is Garnier, just across from the Gare St. Lazare (111 rue St. Lazare, 8e; Tel. 33/1-43-87-50-40). Open ’til 11:30 P.M., Garnier caters to voyagers waiting for their train and locals who like to belly up to the bar for oysters on the half shell.
Another good option is La Cagouille (10 place Constantin-Brancusi, 14e; Tel. 33/1-43-22-09-01), whose chef Gérard Allemandou considers himself something of an oyster purist: He serves his personal favorites, les marennes d’Oléron harvested by David Hervé, raw on the half shell with no sauce at all. La Cagouille’s sister restaurant, L’Uitr (1 place Falguière, 15e; Tel. 33/1-47-34-12-24), is also devoted to shellfish—and offers some of the best prices around.