If you are living in the Poitou-Charentes area you are blessed by the presence of a vast oyster producing area. 45% of the oysters grown in France come from this region and they are some of the best tasting oysters you can ever get.
Now if you have never tasted oysters, it is time to give them a try. If you tried them once and did not like them well have another go, in fact have several goes, because they are said to be an acquired taste. Although, I can never remember a time when I did not like them. I was bought up in Essex and one of our days out was to sometimes visit Southend on Sea, also known as ‘Sathend’ and a real treat was a plate of cockles or whelks, so I suppose I had a good apprenticeship. If you do like oysters, great, and you may be familiar with what I am now going to say.
There are many different types and species of oyster in the world. In France there are two. Ostrea edulis, these are known as Plates because they are flatter and there are two types Belons which come from Brittany and Marennes which come from Charente Maritime area. However not many these days as disease decimated this type and now they only make up 4% of the total production.
The other type is Crassostrea gigas which are more convex in shape and called Creuses. There are again different types, such as Pacific, Portugaise and Japonaise. These are the main ones grown in this region.
Size is important! and they are sold from size 000 down to size 6, the bigger the number the smaller they are. The 000 size weigh about120 grams each and the 6’s weigh about 20 grams each. If you want to cook them you will want the bigger ones but to eat them fresh go for the smaller ones.
Quality is also important. This is controlled by the process known as ‘affinage en claire’ which is where the oysters are finished of in claires which are like ponds in the salt marshes. These ponds receive some fresh water and some sea water. Also they contain an algae which is called Navicula and is a blue colour. Oysters are filter feeders so they take in this algae and that gives them a greenish hue and improves their flavour. This is why these type of oysters are also known as Verts.
There are three categories:
Fines de Claire. These spend between one and two months in the ponds and at a density of 20 oysters per square yard.
Speciales de Claire. These spend more than two months in the ponds and at a density of 10 oysters per square yard.
Pousses en Claire. These spend Four months in th ponds and at a density of only 5 oysters per square yard.
So the longer they are in the pond the better and the more space they have the better and off course this affects the price.
Try to eat you oysters fairly quickly after you have bought them, never a problem for me. You can keep them for a while in the fridge, do not store them in a plastic bag or in water, best in a damp hessian bag or just in a dish with damp cloth on top. Open them about one hour before you are going to eat them. There are special knives to open them, one sale everywhere in France, not so easy in GB. Pour off any excess juice and let them rest. The bigger they are the more difficult they are to open. You go in from the side, I favour the slightly concave side rather than the convex side and about half way down. If you are new to this take it carefully and hold the oyster in a cloth so that if you slip the knife does not do too much damage.
You can prepare sauces to put on them onion and vinegar is popular and there are various concoctions with chilli. I prefer a small squeeze of fresh lemon. If you want to cook them there are lots of recipes and it may be a good idea to eat cooked oysters a few times before the first time you try fresh ones.
DO NOT SWALLOW THEM WHOLE. That is such a waste and only for plebs who don’t like them but want to be seen to be cool. Chew them, roll them round your mouth, get the flavour, that’s why you eat them, isn’t it? Well they are also good for you and contain lots of trace elements and some say they improve your sex life. Well maybe.
Finally on that note, the old joke which I am sure you have all heard.’ I had half a dozen oysters last night, but I was a bit disappointed because only five of them worked.’