Oysters farming is a thriving part of the culture and economy of the Étang de Thau (the Thau Lagoon between Sète and Bouzigues) in the Languedoc Roussillon region, and the picturesque town of Bouzigues produces the most sought-after oysters in Europe. That is because, due to the higher density of salt in the lagoon, they are considered much tastier than their ocean-produced counterparts.
Even Bouzigues’ extensive oyster beds, however, are hard pressed to keep up with the worldwide demand. My theory is that the local population is consuming more than its fair share! It is not uncommon to see a glass of wine and 6 oysters consumed at the local indoor market as early in the day as breakfast.
Myths and Misunderstandings
Oyster myths and misunderstandings abound and so I decided to educate myself by a trip to Bouzigues’ oyster museum (well worth the visit). Also I talked with local merchants and restaurant owners about oyster facts. What I learned is that not all oysters are created equal; there is quite a hierarchy. Yes, size does matter.
Oysters range in sizes from 1 to 6 or 7. Size one is the largest, yet the lowest in the taste “pecking order.” However, baked ‘au gratin‘ with parsley, garlic, butter and breadcrumbs, it emerges triumphant. For the smaller, bluer-blooded relations, a size 3 or 4 simply demands to be consumed raw. Cremating them in an oven would be an unfortunate ending.
More on that later. First, we need to know how to open – or shuck – the oyster.
Shucking an Oyster (and Leaving Your Fingers Intact)
Special chain mail gloves are available for those wary of injuring your hands; but save your money. Instead, purchase a bottle of Languedoc white Picpoul de Pinet wine. For oysters, it’s a marriage made in heaven. It insures your oysters’ last moments are happy ones (it will still be alive, after all). Just follow these directions and shucking will prove a painless experience:
- Wrap the oyster in a tea towel or cloth, the flatter shell facing upwards and the hinge pointing towards you.
- Grip the oyster/shucking knife firmly and insert into the small hole located in the hinge. A short knife with a strong, blunt blade can substitute for an oyster knife.
- Do not use a sharp kitchen knife. Twist the oyster knife until the shells snap apart (like turning the ignition key in a car). Then run the knife blade backwards and forwards along the upper shell in order to sever the muscle holding the two shells together.
- Gently remove the top shell, taking care not to spill any of the liquid inside. It is a good idea to open the oysters over a bowl. Some people prefer to empty the liquid but to their surprise, as the oyster is alive, it will refill with water that it has been storing.
How To Savour Your Oyster
Now that you have successfully shucked your oyster, how should you eat it? Heated debate centers around this question: swallowed whole – or chewed first? No oyster aficionado would forego the subtle flavours (nut or cucumber for example, depending on season), which are released when the oyster is gently chewed.
What accompaniments should you serve with the oyster? Nothing at all, say the experts – especially given the tastiness of Bouzigues oysters.
The North American tradition of adding horseradish or hot sauce is considered tantamount to manslaughter! However, French restaurants offer the options of simply adding a few drops of lemon or shallot vinegar, which will not detract from the natural flavours. (Lemon originally was used to check if the oyster was alive: if alive it ‘cringes’ when the juice is applied.)
A Few Other Pearls of Oyster Wisdom
- Oysters can live outside of water up to 10 days and are good travelers – producers from Bouzigues have exported their oysters all the way to China.
- Oysters in water can live up to 20 years
- Oysters are bisexual. Born first as males they produce sperm, then they become egg producing females and later switch back to being a male.
- Oysters can release around 1 million eggs in one spawning season.
- A rich source of vitamins, eating six oysters a day also meets the daily recommended intake of many minerals
- What are the odds of finding a pearl in an oyster? One in 12,000. If you were lucky enough to find one, however, the world would really be your oyster!
Nancy McGee, founder of Absolutely Southern France, gives “insider hints” on regional delicacies, destinations and food etiquette. For a personal cheese etiquette experience, join Nancy on a Gourmet Walking Tour of Sète or Montpellier. Nancy is also a is a guest contributor to the Barefoot Blogger: bfblogger.com