Pleasures from the Sea

Coquillage (Shellfish): Oysters and More

I love sea scallops, those sweet, nutty fleshy medallions that have a normal season from perhaps late October, early November through March. That’s the only time most restaurants in Brittany, France’s seafood mecca, will serve them. Scallops are especially popular at year’s end, as I was reminded at my favorite Paris bistro, Benoît, one November in recent years. It’s one of those places where everything’s comme il faut, but nevertheless I asked the seasoned waiter, “what’s good today?” “Madame,” he replied, as though pained for me, “the scallops, of course!” He was right.

Oysters are another singular eating experience. Not nearly as expensive as, say, caviar, but somehow they speak of the utmost sophistication. And what could be easier to serve? It was Escoffier, the legendary Parisian chef, who, at the turn of the 20th century, introduced the practice of serving them over a bed of crushed ice with their half shells as little bowls for the delicious salty juices. A little squeeze of lemon and a few twists of pepper wonderfully complement the natural flavor. And though an acquired taste, once you try it, you might find yourself hooked on the sensation of that tender grayish glob of sea-going goodness sliding down your throat. Not for nothing do hedonists pair oyster eating with seduction. And some will add that the true sensual delight is enhanced by watching another savor them with you.

My husband likes to tell a story of our first trip to discover Brittany, early in our marriage. For him that meant the landscape, the sea, the similarities with England, the architecture, the history. I was interested in those things, too, but frankly my anticipation was more concerned with mussels, oysters, crêpes and the wondrous variety of Breton cookies. We headed first to a beautiful little auberge near the sea to visit the oyster beds. A little shack nearby served them by the dozen, and, though it was early for lunch, we had to have some. We sat there, alone, ordered, and the next thing I can remember is Edward laughing out loud. Gazing into the platter set before us, I had totally lost awareness of being there with someone else, an entrancement made of being near the water and smelling its precious fruit. As I concentrated on swallowing these firm little morsels, Edward said he had never seen anyone “experience” oysters that way. And it was only our second dozen.

The next day, I showed him how we eat mussels: no fork necessary, just use your first empty shell and scrape the meat from the others. With a glass or two of Muscadet, we had fabulous lunches, low in calories, high in mineral and vitamins. Oysters, too, can be the main element of a surprisingly balanced meal, containing protein, carbohydrates and just a little fat (to say nothing of the wealth of vitamins and minerals). I’m always amazed that a half-dozen oysters are only 60 or 70 calories. Like a great love, they give a lot back, always new, never boring. When we are in Paris, places like Le Dôme that serve them brilliantly have become our cafeteria, and now more than ever there are wondrous varieties of oysters to be found in raw bars across America. Thanks to good cultivation practices filling steady but not exploding demand, the season is rather long: virtually year-round but peak in the fall and winter. (The rule about the months ending with “r,” comes from the days before refrigeration. Nevertheless, be careful during warm summer months.) We French count oysters as one of our year-end rituals. Visit a French market at Christmas and especially on New Year’s Eve and you’ll see crate after crate awaiting indulgent mouths across the country.