Friday, February 23, 2007

Inspired by Oysters

We are still in high oyster season. This time of year there’s a guy on the quai who drives from the coast of Brittany with his load of oysters in the wee hours of the morning to hit St. Antoine at sunrise. We can get them cheap and fresh and just the way we like them, and when we’re buying them to take home, we take them from him.

One café at the market located down near the level of Place Bellecour is a great place to sit outside and enjoy des huîtres freshly shucked from another supplier who gets them from the Mediterranean. Although I prefer the flavor of the northern variety better, (the southern ones taste more salty and just paint another flavor picture) nothing beats sitting out in the open air with a plate full of freshly shucked huîtres, a pot of the café’s cool dry Macon that seems just right, a fist full of rye bread from the people who baked it in their stone oven in neighboring town Caluire-en-Cuire that morning, and a pat of M. Coche’s hand moulded farm butter.

The people at the café don’t mind that we enjoy the oysters bought from someone else while we sip the wine we bought there, even if it means we’ll hover for an extra hour and only buy a few euros worth of wine. I suppose if they were only serving coffee shots to the market goers, they’d make a heck of a lot more profit from the drinks. We do happily pay a couple extra bucks when we have a dozen shucked and stacked onto the platter heaped with shaved ice and seaweed. If we've really got a huge platter, the oyster shuckers lend us a rack to be placed on the little square table and the oysters placed atop that, so there's still room for your drinks.

I suspect that at least half of the shucking fee must go to the café although we’d never know it and they’d probably deny it if asked. I can imagine if this kind of situation were taking place at a riverside café in the States, they’d be pretty transparent about an extra fee paid to the café to eat the food bought elsewhere. It would be normal, kind of like a restaurant would charge a corkage fee. But such an idea of outright charging a fee to the people would not go over well at a café in this country. It would not be in the spirit of the café culture. People have the right to order a single drink and stick around all day occupying a table if they want, it's the custom. In any case, in the grand scheme of things, we break all kinds of rules, drinking wine on Sunday before noon and slurping them down with the best of them.

Sunshine bouncing the warm glow from sepia, rose and yellow toned buildings along both sides up the old and snaking Saone river adds value. Add the boats slowly making their way along, the stories they evoke from the burnish of their woodwork to their provenance and captains, a cool winter breeze that whispers home fires, and there you have a moment to remember.

You can choose sea snails, called bulots, boiled shrimp, and various other creatures in season and compose a seafood platter if you wish, getting as fancy as you like.

When you have had your fill of them raw on the half shell, it’s time to start cooking. Using oysters in cooking can give a dish that je ne sais quoi that sometimes people get from anchovies or their sprinkle of spice mix maison, or any number of secret ingredients. In the winter, oysters become a part of that. A marinade and sauce from agrumes (citrus fruits) is the perfect foil for the inclusion of oysters in a poultry dish. I love pairing oysters with bitter winter greens in stuffing for pigeons or other game birds as well, adding them to meat glazes, soups too. Of course sometimes we cook and serve them as the star of the first course.

Legend has it that the dish called Oysters Rockefeller comes from a New Orleans chef inspired to serve oysters like classic Burgundy escargots when he ran out of French snails. Necessity is the mother of invention. Drive an hour north from Lyon and you are in the heart of Burgundy. After having been properly cleaned and softly simmered in any number of secretly guarded broth configurations, snails in Burgundy are served in their shells with what we call beurre d’escargots, which is a hefty farm butter with tons of chopped parsley worked into it, a generous dose of garlic, and enough hand mashed ground almonds to take the flavor to another level without actually tasting the nuts.

Since on Fridays we have a poissonnière at the Halle on my square, tonight I’ve decided to cook up some oysters inspired by this very idea. I’ve decided just on my personal principle that crème fraîche is going to play a role, and well, of course I will throw myself into the whole intriguing story behind Oysters Rockefeller, grilling them under the broiler with cheese to finish and serving them with their shells nestled on their beds of salt. Hmmm. Now to decide on a cheese.

I wonder if I'll find a pearl?

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Blogger Lisa Fain (Homesick Texan) said...

Wonderful post. One of my favorite memories of a French holiday was a lazy Sunday morning spent washing down Brittany oysters with Macon outside of some Parisian wine bar. I wish that was a tradition here in the U.S. A lovely way to spend the day.

4:43 PM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger Connie said...

that picture, with the blues and the whites and the bright yellow are all just so perfect. that is living!

9:46 PM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

He drives from Brittany to Lyon? Mon Dieu!

1:01 AM, February 26, 2007  

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