‘Tis December and yet it’s not visions of sugarplums that are dancing in my head and the gingerbread will have to wait, for this time of year I dream instead of tiered trays of huîtres on the half-shell nestled in crushed ice briskly swooping down in front of me, a crisp, chilled carafe of Muscadet awaiting their arrival. This particular dream takes me back to Brasserie Wepler in Paris, where I was fortunate enough to experience my first oysters many years ago.
At the crossroads of Montmarte and Pigalle, they have for the past 108 years, been the reputed best place for oysters in the city. There were many types brought to us, on platter after platter it seemed, each with their distinct flavours – some with a mineral tang, some almost sweet and nutty – the most memorable for me being the (now extinct) Portugaise. Hovering in shallow shells with broad ruffled edges, it was a delicate, elegant creature that tasted of the sea. This lost species has since been replaced with the “Japonaise” or European oyster which is arguably similar, but not quite the same.
If you walk down most any street in Paris this time of year, over cobblestones dark and shiny with drizzle and the last of the fallen leaves papered to the damp sidewalks, you are bound to encounter myriad displays of oysters outside of the brasseries awaiting your inspection. Delivered fresh each day, it is not unusual to see selections of a dozen or more different types to choose from.
Once inside, windows are steamy from a full room lively with conversation and eating. The huîtiére will shuck your oysters to order mere moments before they are placed before you. Cool and alive with just the smallest squeeze of fresh lemon, suspended in their own precious liquor…your own private heaven.
When one can’t get to Paris, oysters are still very do-able at home. Talk to the best fish monger you can find in your area and ask what he has to offer, then enjoy a little Paris of your own.
5 keys to enjoying oysters:
- Start with a proper oyster shucking knife. It will make the job relatively easy, help you avoid injury and damaging of the shell
- When shucking, great care must be taken to preserve the liquor in the shell for it is part of the oyster’s environment and has the flavour of the both the oyster and the sea.
- Shuck immediately before they are to be eaten. No cheating by shucking early and stashing in the fridge…tsk tsk! Is that any way to treat a lovely oyster who is giving its life for your pleasure?
- Don’t overpower the delicate flavour so nuances can be duly savoured. There are different schools of thought here, but I find it best to let the integrity of the food speak clearly on its own, so easy on the condiments. Respect the food.
- Choose a wine that can balance the briny and metallic notes of the oysters. Muscadet, Chabis, a dry rosé, and of course you can never go wrong with a lovely dry champagne. Ever.
If you’ve never shucked oysters before, never fear! Here’s a good video that takes you through the whole process: