All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Oysters and 'r's.

Here somes summer, and the oysters of Arcachon are off the menu again. I forget will either be poisonous algae or poisonous effluent, but at least down there it won't be radioactivity.

Still, there are plenty of other alternatives, as long as you keep an eye on your map of leaky coastal nuclear power stations while you are making your choice. Pretty safe with Cancale and Belen, nice round traditional oysters from Brittany, and anything down the Vendee coast., though these are the craggy Portugese oyster......just keep clear of Normandy's offerings with the Cap la Hogue power station dribbling goodness knows what into the waters. I wonder if President Sarkozy will be offering President Obama Normandy oysters when they meet for the D Day commemoration, or whether the U.S. secret service will veto the suspect offerings?

I used to enjoy oysters when in the U.K., though the price of Colchester natives even then would make your hair curl if you bought them in Wheelers. I used to buy them from the oyster stall on Mersea Island in those far off days when a cheesecloth blouse on a young woman in summer would bring about a fit of absentmindedness on the part of the chap selling his wares when it came to counting the oysters he was handing over. These days I expect you could strip down to your Agent Provocateur knickers without any effect on the price or weight.

Initially, France put me off the oyster. It was the fault of the fruit de mer, that stomach turning plateau of cooked shellfish of uncertain age and origin combined with living things in shells awaiting their fate at the hat pin provided for each customer. Having noted that the incidence of food poisoning went up when the local supermarket reduced its intake of shellfish from twice to once a week, I went off shellfish in a big way.

My repugnance was not overcome by the French New Year thrash....the Sylvester. Oysters are obligatory at these events which are great in every other way and French hospitals cancel all staff leave in order to be ready for the rush of the 'oyster knife through the palm of the hand' injuries , resulting from opening oysters at speed while having drink taken. I wondered whether it was because the craggy Portugese oyster was more difficult to open than the horseshoe type, but I have come to the conclusion that is probably the amount of 'drink taken' that is the deciding factor.

Then the family came down for the summer and went to the seaside for the day, to a resort they used to go to when the children were young, returning with a basket of craggy oysters. We sat outside at the wooden table perched precariously on the slope under the trees and ate them with relish...they were plump, juicy and a far cry from the miserable specimens of the winter months. I was reconverted to oysters!

It made me New Year the shops and stalls are awash with panniers of oysters, collected especially for the winter is the major selling point of the year. How long have these oysters been sitting about in the viviers, or holding tanks, let alone in transport and stacked up in the loading bays of the supermarket delivery systems? An ex neighbour of mine, a retired Paris bus driver of a careful turn of mind, told me that when he buys oysters for the New Year he insists that the panniers are opened in front of him and that he tries the contents. He had been disappointed too often before starting this practice.

'They don't like it, but, damn it, it's my money I'm spending!'

I wonder, too, if, as well as the freshness factor, the feeding is better in the summer months. A friend goes down to the islands off the Atlantic coast in the summer and comes back laden with buckets of wild oysters which he distributes lavishly...they are a real treat, but even the shop bought oyster is now firmly back on my summer menu, whether it is clear, milky, or, in the case of the oysters from Marennes, green! And I don't have to wonder if there is an 'r' in the month. It doesn't matter!

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