French oysters; a quick guide to choosing, shucking and eating
Oysters can be scary. Their appearance for a start; like a fossil on the outside and something prehistoric on the inside. That’s supposing you can get into them without slicing your finger off in the process. You have to loosen them from the shell and tip the lot into your mouth, without showering yourself, and then eat something that’s still alive. And then there’s the risk or food poisoning isn’t there? And shouldn’t you eat them at certain times of the year?
So why do we bother? The French poet Leon-Paul Fargue said eating one was ‘like kissing the sea on the lips’ and I agree. It was in Hyde Park at a small food fair that I had my first opportunity to try one. Freshly shucked oysters lay on crushed ice, on sale for 50p each. I bought one, dressed it with a little lemon juice and then turned my back on the stall holder so he wouldn’t guess that I didn’t know what to do next and that I was slightly terrified. Edging away in readiness for a quick getaway if I had the urge to spit it out, I took the plunge. Some taste memories stay with you for decades and this was one of them. The salty, sour liquid cooled and enlivened my tongue at the same time. The silky meatiness of the mollusc as it slid down my throat was pure pleasure. I’d started a love affair for life, although in the speed-dating world of oyster-eating you sometimes get to kiss a few frogs when searching for your prince.
Strangely, I’ve eaten more oysters here in Dubai than at any other time in my life; flown in, wrested from their beds, they feature in the more luxurious buffets and many menus. The French claim to have the best oysters in the world. They’ve had a passion for them since Roman times; so passionate in fact that over-harvesting decimated stocks of their native breeds and most varieties produced there now were sourced originally from Japan. But where better to expand my rather sketchy knowledge of oysters than Rostang, which bears the name of a famous two-Michelin-starred, French chef, under the guidance of the heavily accented Breton called Cyril.
Stepping across the threshold of Rostang is like leaving Dubai for Paris; a shine of dark wood, glow of art deco lamps, dusky chalk boards and the glimmer of patinaed mirrors. We sat at the bar while Chef Cyril guided us through the four varieties of French oysters that are flown in twice a week from Cancale in Brittany.
The French coast has always been a prime spot for oyster beds and the French cottoned on first to cultivating oysters in large numbers. Once home to the European (or native) oyster (Ostrea edulis), over-harvesting and then devastating oyster diseases reduced its numbers meaning that the French looked elsewhere for faster-growing and hardier varieties. These were initially from Portugal but then Pacific (or Rock) oysters (Crassostrea gigas) from Japan thrived and now dominate the market.
One in 100,000 oysters of these edible varieties contains a pearl.
Oyster varieties we tasted
Fine de Claire – These were the smallest and the saltiest (probably as they are fattened in salt marshes). They are very commonly served oysters from France with a good juicy texture and balance of slightly nutty, meaty flesh. If oysters can be compared to wine, I thought that these were the least complex in flavour and without much length.
Tsarskaya – A Pacific oyster variety developed for and grown solely in Cancale, named in honour of the prodigious appetite that the Tsars had for French oysters. This was my ideal oyster, with just a small squeeze of lemon, it had a clean taste that I absolutely adored. An iodine hit, the right amount of saltiness and a fresh pure acidity which meant I kept going back for more, (where the others were too rich to have more than a couple). It tasted like the very essence of the sea – ‘oh, those Russians’ (name that tune!)
Müirgan – In Gaelic means ‘born from the sea’ and originates in Ireland. Quite a delicate taste but sweeter than the first two, fleshier and larger in size. My neighbour from The Journal was in raptures about them.
Belon – The only European (native) oysters that were served. These were much flatter in shape they were the sweetest and meatiest (and the rarest and probably the costliest). Nice but my heart had been stolen already.
Also discussed was a native oyster called Pied de Cheval (horse’s hoof) which can weigh up to 3kg and live up to 20 years old. These are prized in France but I’m not sure I fancy them much. Sounds like far too much of a good thing.
Oysters and wine matching
The classic wine pairing for oysters is Muscadet and Manager Slyvan from Nantes looked with regret at the Petit Chablis being served, although Chablis is an excellent match. A young, unoaked, crisp white with good acidity is the ideal partner meaning you can enjoy the oysters without the need for other accompaniments (shallots, vinegar, lemon etc.). Non-vintage Perrier-Jouët Gran Brut Champagne was my choice; dry with citrus notes and a delicate mousse, which was versatile enough to match all the oyster styles and flavours. As this during the early days of January, I abstemiously avoided icy cold vodka which was also offered and could have been perfect with the Tsarskaya oysters.
Sizes, storing and serving
Fresh oysters have a nine day shelf life from harvest if kept refrigerated, but for eating the fresher the better. Cyril advised that they should be served on ice to keep them fresh but not cold. Never put them in ice or they will freeze (and die). When just opened, if you touch the oyster with the tip of a knife it will move; this means it’s alive (and edible). As for eating only when there was an ‘r’ in the month, they are not as dangerous as they were during summer in France and England before refrigeration was available, but the warmer weather does have a slightly detrimental effect on the taste. Do make sure you eat them from a reputable supplier or restaurant though.
Pacific oysters and native oysters have different measurement systems in France. Pacific oysters are graded from 5 to 0 (the latter the largest, weighing over 150g) and native from small (petit) to very large (très grande – over 100g).
Shucking or opening oysters
Every year Rostang holds an oyster opening competition among their guests, where the one who opens the fastest wins special prizes. Use a short bladed oyster knife and follow the instructions from Chef Cyril below:
Eating oysters in Dubai
It is reputed that Henri IV, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and Napoléon all insisted on oysters only from Cancale, refusing any other type. The raw bar at Rostang has featured produce from Parcs Saint Kerber, oyster producers from Cancale in Northwest France throughout January but this ended today. However oysters are usually on the menu at Rostang and there are plans to have a year-round oyster and Champagne bar, launching soon.
My recommendations for other good places to eat oysters in Dubai (and the UAE) include Rivington Grill (theirs are Scottish) and The Beach Bar and Grill at the One & Only. Independent restaurant reviewer Foodiva gave me her recommendations too:
Fire & Ice at Raffles – I had some size 4s there recently, or maybe they were 5s?!…
Tomo at Raffles has deep fried, tempura style ones on their menu
Vu’s at Jumeirah Emirates Towers
Pier Chic at Al Qasr
Wheeler’s by Marco Pierre White at DIFC
Scott’s at Jumeirah Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi
The last word must go to Ernest Hemingway from his novel ‘A Moveable Feast’
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
So if you were scared of oysters before, have I convinced you to be braver now? Are you ready for the full-on French kiss or just a peck on the cheek? Have you always been seduced by their silky, saline charm? Do you remember your first oyster? And what and where were the best oysters you’ve even eaten?
Some other related articles worth reading
- The delights of the oyster (telegraph.co.uk)
- Oyster hunting break in Cornwall (bedruthan.com)
- Best matches with Oysters (matchingfoodandwine.com)
- A tasting tour at Atlantis (mycustardpie.com)
- Oysters: kissing the sea on its lips (blogs.vancouversun.com)
- The Only 7 Things You Need To Know About Oysters (buzzfeed.com)