Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year-end calamities i: Oysters down in Oyster Bay do it

Possibly it will assist readers of any entry here on gourmandise, to be aware that before there was Apicius in our reading there was Mr Porter in our hearing. We needed no Seneca on the oy-ster's flattery of the gastric juices, to incline us to its delectation; and things have got worse in that vein, not better, as we have ploughed through Point and parsed Larousse, dallying with contemporaries and their trendy caboose. If not quite dreading the fact, we know there will be oysters on the 31st; and the question is, as in all such manifestations of hospitality, whether a celebration means going over the top, or epitomising the underlying ingredient.

We are to be counted among the waifs on the quay in New Orleans, harried commuters at Grand Central, denizens of the back door of the Plaza, weekend harvesters in Brittany, slaking our savourings of its saline slide in a sympathetic salutation of the shell, think-ing ourselves well satisfied. Not that we're unaware that behind this belabourable innocent there lies that spirit of travesty which affixes itself to everything luscious, purporting to enhance its unalloyed elegance. Say lemon, and you've loosed the tides of lèse-majesté.

Had not Mr Porter written, Why Don't We Try Staying Home? Could he really have meant that, literally? In our roster of Year-End Calamities, the crisis of the oyster comes first to mind because it yields to mitigation, setting a lovely precedent for Calamities to come. We know that Le Bernardin will slather oysters in truffles and their deriv-atives, because Le Coze showed the grotesque could be done. But does it have to be?

Oh, no. We can allow our chefs their margin and still escape with a palatable coinage of the briny bullion. Let us con-cede the naughty inclination of hosts, to do something with ingredients of such purity, so that glitzy bars now compete in the molding of their ice cubes, and discover, rather, that lesser state of alienation which seems the more consistent, after all, with tolerating another year. As in almost all quests for the best way of leaving something alone, one turns to the sympathetic lady.

For fusing these qualities on behalf of the palate, I turn to Amanda Hesser; and I greatly mean no disdain of Mmes David, Fisher, Waters, Goldstein, Rodgers, Des-jardins and Hamilton, whose sense of the correlation between literature and food is no idle gesture in their feeling for how to celebrate with the palate. Often, I do what Amanda would do or implies she would do, because she respects ingredi-ents and their culture, as what they are, as we see in her masterpiece from Burgundy.

A nice boundary is the natural wine pairing for the ingredient in its ideal state. Abduct its viticultural balance from the intersection of minerality and brevity, firm acidity and neutral oak, and you simply don't have an oyster, anymore.

I'm fully aware that some hand has shot up, demanding to query the concept of an ideal state, and who are we to disdain this Platonic reservation? If we cannot retain the pH, texture, intactness, suppleness, profile, and palpability of the oyster, to say nothing of its fla-vours, then indeed, yes, we may stew it, chop it, spice it, and blizzard it out our pipette for all it cares.

Amanda has the home key of the beast, to perfection. Whereas, we were in grand cru Chablis or Sancerre with the original, we've modulated no further than to Meursault, and the thing remains recognisable as what it is, losing little or none of its visual allure, its colour balances only deepening. This is not a skill, it's an honest appetite. Henry Adams, himself, remarking at Mont-Saint-Michel on how the archangel loved heights, would have felt no decline in the vitality of her transposition. Here, happily, is all of the respect for the culture of the oyster that we loved in Eleanor Clark's The Oysters of Locmariaquer. 

For, cuisine does have a home in the world where it comes from, and one learns to wish to enter it respectfully, as a relais from one's own wit. If this preparation seems too obvious, then it is successful.

Oysters with Shallot-Thyme Butter, for Four

16 oysters
sel de mer

2 shallots, 1 sliced thin, 1 minced
3 springs thyme, leaves stript
1/2 cup chardonnay, no oak
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

1. Heat the oven to 350ºF. Shuck the oysters on their shells with their liquor on a baking sheet.

2. Make the shallot-thyme butter: Place the sliced shallot, 2/3 of the thyme leaves, and the wine in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce to 2 tablespoons. Add one cube of butter at a time to the pan, whisking continuously. The sauce should emulsify and return to a low boil after each addition of butter. When half of the butter has been added, season lightly with salt. Continue adding the rest of the butter. Taste and adjust seasoning again. (This butter is quite rich, and you want to maintain its soft, slightly acidic flavour, so don't season too highly). Strain through a fine sieve and set aside.

3. Bake the oysters (from refrigeration temperature) 4 to 5 minutes, until just warmed through and lightly cooked. Their liquor will steam them rather than drying them out; do not overcook. The entire dish is to be soft and unctuous in the mouth. Remove from the oven, and spoon over the thyme butter before plating. Transfer the oysters in shell to a bed of coarse salt on 4 salad plates, and sprinkle with the minced shallot and reserved thyme leaves.

nb: If you are a couple staying at home on the 31st, this is a fine après-Rohmer snack with toast points, and there one could apply a little caviar. With the wine for these oysters, please avoid alcohol above 13.5 and frankly, if at all possible, stay around Beaune. The shallot butter will embrace malolactic fermentation in the Chardonnay (which the oyster would normally reject) but it will still desire only the subtlest use of older oak. Be firm with your wine merchant, who should know you well enough by now. "Big" is horrible with oysters, and if he notices that it is "buttery," then it's too buttery. Is Champagne OK? Please, never ask that. 

Cole Porter

Selected Lyrics
Let's Do It
Robert Kimball, editor
op. cit.

Why Don't We Try
  Staying Home?
Robert Kimball, editor
Overlook Press, 2000©
Amanda Hesser
The Cook and the Gardener
  A year of recipes and writings from
  the French countryside
Norton, 1999©

Henry Adams
  and Chartres
op. cit.

Eleanor Clark
The Oysters of
Pantheon, 1964©

v  Claude


  1. No greater authority than Miss Fisher approved of champagne with oysters, especially a preparation as this one. And considering that the grape variety is the same, I do too. Temperature is key here.

  2. Right on all counts, but it's a pity there is such a presumption against Champagne with oysters that the plain meaning of the text, "never ask," has failed to convey permission over that hurdle. The reason one says, "never ask" in regard to Champagne, is that it's phenomenally versatile, almost chameleon-like in its adaptations. The reason one says, "never ask," however, is more fundamental still: the implication is odious, that one's taste requires permission.

    As to temperature, especially, one's preference (not to enunciate a rule) is against the custom of over-chilling a wine, particularly if it's bubbly.

    Thank you for enabling this clarification. The holidays make one too carefree.

  3. Huitres et Veuve Clicquot vraiment et absoulement !

  4. My dear Lucien, I'm almost inclined to send you out on an expedition for us all, to discover anything (apart from a plate of table grapes drizzled in milk) with which Veuve Clicquot is not, at the very least, eminently presentable. She allays the oil in a frankfurter, she rallies to the opulence of a hamburger, and she has the acidic riff to replenish your popcorn between reels. With oysters? What a convivial disposition you do have, my friend.

    But may I go on? Her "Demi-Sec" is so delicious with fruit that I really can't hear of your not laying some in for your next tart. :) Now: there's a splurge to quench your urge and then some, may I say!

    Happy celebrations of the calendar, Lucien. All of it.