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French oysters; a quick guide to choosing, shucking and eating

January 11, 2013

OystersOysters 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.

Oysters at Rostang

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.

Oyster history

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 tasting at Rostang

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 champagne Rostang

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).

Muirgen oyster - this is a size 1

Muirgen oyster – this is a size 1

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?

Oysters from France

35 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2013 1:07 am

    Extremely interesting, although I can’t imagine myself eating an oyster… ;-)

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • January 11, 2013 8:08 am

      You surprise me Rosa – however the world is divided into those that will eat them and those that won’t. Thanks for the comment.

  2. January 11, 2013 7:51 am

    I adore oysters – I gorged on them in Paris over Christmas when it is one of the Parisians’ favourite foods. A trip to Cancale should be on every food lover’s agenda – eating oysters from small artisanal producers on the beach and then enjoying massive platters of oysters and crabs in the harbor-facing restaurants in the evening – bliss! I think the ‘r in the month’ edict also has something to do with the oyster’s mating season, when they can be cloudy and less than visually appealing to eat. I never have them with lemon, always with sauce mignonette – red wine vinegar with very finely diced shallots. And you managed to sidestep the oyster eater’s perpetual dilemma – chew or just swallow? I’m a chewer – nothing gives you the taste of the sea more effectively. And to think that they were once the food of the poor in Victorian Britain!

  3. January 11, 2013 8:13 am

    Thanks Dave – I’m a one chew and a swallow! The subject of English oysters is a whole other post – the first link below is a good one. I’ve eaten seafood in the harbour at Honfleur but never oysters in Cancale – and it’s now firmly on my agenda. Looking forward to reading all about your French trip!

    • January 11, 2013 4:13 pm

      Cancale: check! Drove there from Normandy for “lunch” and completely and totally over-indulged with a view of the bay. While delicious no doubt, I have of recent years developed a preference for the delicate, sea-salty delicious oysters from the Northeastern cold Atlantic waters of Prince Edward Island. Every year in when in Canada we bring home a full box and “get shucking.” You’ve made my mouth water!

      • January 13, 2013 9:12 pm

        How heavenly. Is there a delicacy that you haven’t eaten Francine! I think you’d have liked the Tsarskaya – they tasted like the Atlantic.

  4. January 11, 2013 11:46 am

    I found your post fascinating, Sally. I don’t know as much about oysters as I would like and you’ve filled in many gaps. On my daughter’s 12th birthday I asked her what she would like and she said she’d like to eat oysters! That’s what we did and it was one of those perfect days.

    • January 13, 2013 9:13 pm

      Neither of my two will even touch fish…let alone an oyster. What a perfect moment.

  5. January 11, 2013 12:41 pm

    I have to say that I have not quite developed my taste buds for oysters. Have had them several times but just cannot get around all the fuss – give me a simple white truffle pizza with cheese instead ;o) I absolutely loved this post with all the great bits of information.

    • January 13, 2013 9:14 pm

      The oysters were a preamble to the truffles (see next post). I think you have to be in the mood for oysters….however, i usually am!

  6. January 11, 2013 12:58 pm

    They are like a tonic, full of beneficial trace elements. To accompany them, I find the best is a bit of pain-beurre/ bread and butter.

    • January 13, 2013 9:15 pm

      Yes, I agree, especially if you are drinking too – this simple touch is usually lacking in Dubai.

  7. January 11, 2013 1:38 pm

    Gosh I am loving your history lessons these days :) French kiss for moi – they are an aphrodisiac after all! I do adore my oysters despite some serious food poisoning in South Africa (Franschhoek) a few years ago…and in December bizzarely! Thanks for the shout out. Am confused with the sizing though…perhaps Fire and Ice’s were 1s or 2s?! Do add Ruth’s Chris to the list too – how could we forget our oyster soiree there?! A friend, an oyster fan, who I bumped into this morning also mentioned Sofitel. x

    • January 13, 2013 9:18 pm

      I was going to add Ruth’s Chris but they don’t feature on their online menu so I wondered if just for the launch. They were incredible – in volume alone! I think most oyster eaters have had one bad one that puts them off for a while. Mine was in Dubai about 14 years ago from a restaurant that is no longer there thank goodness!

  8. January 11, 2013 2:24 pm

    I’m crazy about oysters – I was just about to suggest they go best with champagne ;-)

    My favourite ones have been in France down the Atlantic Coast although we can get a quick oyster fix from the van in Whitstable north Kent in between holidays!

    • January 13, 2013 9:19 pm

      I would love to try Whitstable oysters….with English sparkling wine of course (a lot of vineyards in England are on the same band of Kimmeridgian clay as Chablis).

  9. January 11, 2013 2:37 pm

    Heavenly – I LOVE oysters. :-) Mandy

  10. January 11, 2013 10:32 pm

    Finally catching up with reading posts. I have never eaten a oyster! I don’t know why, I’ve had plenty of opportunities but never the urge. Perhaps one day in Dubai…

    • January 13, 2013 9:20 pm

      Take the plunge Ren – the fresher the better.

  11. January 12, 2013 12:23 am

    A very , very interesting Oyster post! thanks for the great & good explanation too! :) Georgous pics & tasty ideas! MMMMMMM!

    • January 13, 2013 9:21 pm

      That’s the joy of blogging – there were big gaps in my oyster knowledge that were filled that evening.

  12. January 12, 2013 2:19 pm

    Love your post Sally – all the information floating along with Champagne – in quite a surreal manner. I’ll have to admit here that I do not have a taste for them while my hubby gorges on them. After reading your post I came to the conclusion that I’ll have to them a try again but only in places that you’ve mentioned or FooDiva as mentioned. probably where you are eating them makes a lot of difference. I have to hide this post from Subir though!

    • January 13, 2013 9:22 pm

      Not really the way to start January – the oyster and Champagne diet!

      • January 13, 2013 9:53 pm

        Or rather see it this way – what a brilliant start… The dawn shows the day!

  13. January 12, 2013 2:48 pm

    What a fantastic post Sally. I’ve just found your blog via Dimas. I still love oysters, especially the Kilpatrick style. Unfortunately I was violently sick, first time ever, last year after eating oysters at The Savoy. I think it’ll take me a while to get back on the oyster wagon.

    • January 13, 2013 9:25 pm

      I’ve tasted a Rockerfeller but never Kilpatrick style. You chose a stylish place to have a dodgy oyster! Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  14. January 12, 2013 5:28 pm

    My favourite pairing with Oysters will always be Oyster stout, or just a plane good Stout… have you ever tried it? It is just beautiful :)

  15. January 13, 2013 9:26 pm

    Actually I haven’t – although I do like stout. One for the bucket list Regula.

  16. January 15, 2013 1:51 pm

    We ate freshly shucked oysters in Cancale on the beach. They were €3.50 per dozen including the lemon. What a bargain!

  17. ken permalink
    January 29, 2013 11:12 pm

    the juice should be left in the oyster shell, not thrown away like the chef did

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