Thursday, February 7, 2013

Oysters: a Very Personal Experience

Most people have a funny story to tell about their first introduction to oysters. Mine was long ago, when I was but 19, a lovely young thing commuting into Manhattan from the suburbs to start my career on Madison Avenue. I was invited to lunch at the famous “21.” Dressed in what we called a sheath in those days, with white gloves, a hat, and shoes and matching handbag, I wanted to impress my suitor. My goal was foiled when he ordered oysters for the two of us. (In those days a man often ordered for the woman without even asking what she liked or wanted.) Having never even seen an oyster, let alone eaten one, I had no idea what to do. I watched other tables, and I saw people swallowing the huge slimy creatures whole—so to avoid seeming unsophisticated, I tried the same method. Unfortunately the oyster stopped short somewhere in my throat and refused to go any farther. I had to quickly retire to the ladies’ room to get it to come back up and enable air to pass again. To avoid embarrassment I slipped out of the restaurant and never saw the gentleman again.

     I avoided oysters for the next ten years, until I was living in Paris, where oysters are served at many occasions. Trying to be adventurous, I would have one or two as my soon-to-be-husband and his family each ate a dozen and were then happy to oblige by finishing off mine. That was until they came to New York for our wedding. During a sightseeing tour of the city, we stopped at Rockefeller Center for lunch. They all ordered oysters and burst out laughing when they saw the huge mollusks on their plates. Never before had they had oysters that were so big, so fat and so tasteless. They tried to cut them with a knife but gave up. They were far more sympathetic to my aversion to oysters after that and hearing my “21” story.  

      Some years later, while living in Paris, I
was invited to dinner by the president of the ad agency where I worked. With his wife, he was entertaining the worldwide president of our organization (another American) at a very fancy Parisian restaurant. Much to my chagrin, our host ordered a “plateau d’huîtres,” which I recognized as being oysters. These were much smaller than the American creatures, so I forced myself to try one. Luckily it went down easily, and I was able to swallow at least six of them. “How wonderful to find Americans who appreciate oysters—Garcon, another platter, please,” he shouted. I noticed the desperation in the eyes of my fellow American when I translated this last phrase to him, and I realized that I was not alone in my misery. We each forced down another six oysters, while our hosts must each have devoured another couple of dozen.

     Since those early days I have learned to appreciate oysters and am happy that there are now many varieties found in the USA that are smaller, more refined and better tasting than the ones I once almost choked on at “21”.  In fact, some weeks ago, Jean Luis Dumonet (Executive chef of The Union Club) came up for lunch and brought us a fairly new breed of oysters called “Island Creek.” They are produced at a Boston oyster farm, whose mission is simply to “grow the world's finest oysters and have the best possible time doing it.” Well we had the best time eating them, and when Michel Jean tasted them he quickly switched to Island Creek so you can now enjoy them at Stissing House.

     While Island Creek offers a number of varieties aqua-farmed in the bay (most of which have won many blind oyster tastings), our favorite is the one they call “Island Creek Oysters.” These are often described as having a “distinct clean butter-and-brine taste, and being delightfully firm.” Duxbury Bay is a prime oyster-growing spot because it is shallow enough to permit a near-complete tidal exchange twice a day. At high tide there are 35 billion gallons of water in the bay, and at low tide, just 7 billion. There are 15- to 20 million oysters in there. There is an abundance of fresh plankton and cold water surging into the bay on each rising tide, which keeps the oysters firm and briny all year long. These conditions are similar to those near La Rochelle and the Île d'Oléron in western France, where Gillardeau produces their "spéciales," our favorite oysters in France. I am told that the “Gillardeau name is to oysters what Hermès is to neckties,” and all French oyster lovers prefer this most expensive breed, which is cultivated with enormously great care. 

In the United States oysters are often served with ketchup, cocktail sauce or hot sauce. These overpowering condiments are really a thing of the past - reserved for those fat tasteless kinds of oysters which once dominated the American market. When serving the new smaller oysters such as Island Creek or Gillardeau, thin slices of buttered rye bread and mignonette sauce (finely chopped shallots, cracked pepper and red wine vinegar) are the traditional accompaniment.  I have learned of late, that a mere drop of lemon juice is enough to cut the faint taste of ocean saltiness and bring out the flavors in the oyster. These smaller oysters are not to be sent whole sliding down your throat, but, on the contrary, are to be chewed with every bite releasing a burst of nutlike flavor and freshness from the mollusk.

Gerard maintains that the best wine to serve is, of course, French Chablis where the Chardonnay vines are cultivated in a cool climate in soil in which 50 million years ago lay massive oyster beds. The flinty crisp freshness of Chablis comes from the oyster shell minerals in this very special soil. An excellent marriage of flavors each enhancing the other. With the Island Creek oysters at Stissing House, Gerard selected the classic Chablis Champs Royau de chez William Fevre at $9 a glass or even better $ 35 a bottle.  Other suggestions – Muscadet-sur-lie from Loire Atlantique, Pouilly Fume (Sauvignon Blanc) from Loire Valley, Pinot Blanc from Alsace and of course - Champagne..

You can purchase Island Creel Oysters on line @

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