I’ve never been to France during spring. I have always been there during summer, autumn and winter but never spring. What’s France, particularly the South, without spring when towering sunflowers and lavender scented fields grace the landscape of charming villages?
My husband owns an old 19th century family house in a quiet village called Gigean near the city of Montpellier. It’s not particularly a charming village but it’s close enough to Bouzigues and Sete, which come alive during the summer due to their coastal placement. Many city dwellers make their annual summer pilgrimage there to enjoy the azure Mediterranean sea and of course fresh seafood.
My husband always insists on going to Bouzigues for its famous seafood platter whenever we’re there. There’s a small but extremely quaint restaurant that serves a big platter of fresh oysters (huitres) for two and a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet white wine at a very reasonable price (around 30 Euros in total). Nothing really beats enjoying this dish al-fresco style where the temperature is perfect while listening to the distant flapping of seagulls’ wings.
Since we dined there quite regularly, we had become familiar with the owner of the restaurant, a dignified-looking woman in her mid-40s, who according to my husband, laughs like a horse and was unashamed to tell her (much to my mortification). I doubt she remembers us since we haven’t been back to the restaurant for more than two years. Unless of course, my husband decides to remind her of that neighing laugh.
I was never a fan of fresh oysters. Growing up in Malaysia, the only oysters I enjoyed was the fried oyster omelette (O’Chien), which I’m sure would horrify any self-respecting French. I can just hear them scream out reproachfully, “Wat iz it? Mais non! Im-po-zee-ble! You ex-peck me to eat deez, huh? Aarh you crah-zee?! By ze way, I am not ungry anymoghre, huh. No, no, I am not angry, I am ungry. UNG-RY. No, I mean not ungry. Ooh-la-la, merde!”
Fortunately, over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate the taste of it after my husband persistently persuaded me to try them.
I’ve slowly discovered that eating oyster is not the same as eating foie gras (goose or duck liver pate), and yes, I love foie gras right from the beginning despite the cruelty of it all. Actually, eating oysters is no less cruel since you eat them while they are literally alive!
Anyway, eating fresh oysters in France has a ceremonious ritual to it, a bit like tea-drinking ceremony in Japan with none of the subdued rigidity but the same elegance. You wouldn’t imagine that the sight of slurping that piece of slimy meat off its shuck (oyster shell) would be anything but elegance.
First of all, the French eat oysters only during the months that are spelled with a “r” (from September to April). It has nothing to do with superstitions. During spring and summer, the water in the sea becomes warmer which causes the flesh to become milky and hence impairing the taste.
Secondly, the French don’t just tackle the oysters straight away. Before the platter arrives, they carefully spread salted butter on a small piece of brown bread. They exchange news while drinking aperitif; usually whiskey, pastis (or the infamous Ricard!), or kir.
When the platter finally arrives, they show appreciation towards the oysters, nestled on a bed of crushed ice and garnished with fresh sea weeds with a sigh of delight and a huge smile. They take a few moments to feast their eyes on the large platter, sometimes in two tier.
It’s interesting how the customers sitting next to your table almost always tend to take an admiring peek at the platter and flash a solidarity smile while they anticipate theirs to arrive. For those who order something else, there’s always this regretful look on them.
Then, they take their time to garnish each shuck with a splash of shallot vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice (oyster purists will have theirs without any condiment), stir it delicately around the oyster with a tiny fork to ensure optimum blending.
The vinegar or lemon juice is to complement (not to get rid of) the strong sea water smell and taste. When opening an oyster shuck, the sea water must never be drained or wasted. This salty water must remain in its shucks even when you eat them. So, never drain them out before you prepare the oysters for eating. What really tells a fresh oyster apart from an imported frozen one is the sea water.
At the same time, the fork is used to gently scrap the meat off the shuck. For a true novice, there is no telling whether this might end up in a disaster. Unless you want to be Mr. Bean having a vacation in France, do attempt this with utmost vigilance.
Now, they are ready. They gently slurp the oyster, let it settles in their mouths for a few seconds and then slowly swallow it with great relish. While the taste still linger on their palettes, they wash it down with a sip of white wine. Picpoul de Pinet is often the best companion for this.
Usually, the French are rather chatty when it comes to dining. They converse animatedly, argue passionately and laugh heartily. But I’ve come to notice that when it comes to eating oysters, they tend to become more “civilised” in manner. Perhaps, the concentration of coordinated hand movements while preparing an oyster makes it harder to gesticulate and focus on topics that require full engagement.
Thirdly, if they don’t live by the sea, most French indulge in oysters during Christmas and New Year. It’s that special kind of dish that takes a lot of hard work to prepare. Sure, they are eaten raw and there is no need to cook them but cleaning and opening the tight shucks require special manipulation of an oyster knife.
Since it needs quite a substantial amount of force to pry the shucks open, the men usually attend to this task. It’s a bit like opening up a durian. Instead of being pricked by the durian’s spikes, if not careful, you can easily be pricked by the oyster knife since it’s difficult to have a good grip of the tiny rough shuck while giving it a good pry. It’s best handled with gloves or towels to protect your hand.
I used to like moule frite (mussels and fries) and soup de poisson (fish soup) best amongst all the seafood in France, but now I’m actually looking forward to my next oyster experience in France. It’s not so much the taste that excites me. It’s the whole ritual. If you’re eating something else, you tend to feel left out.
Shucks! I guess I’ll have to wait patiently for it.
P/s: I’m thinking of starting a series of stories on my experience in France. Please feel free to provide any comments on what interest you about the country.