14 November 2010

minor casualties: oysters & chablis dinner

The occasion was there was no occasion. Oysters are plentiful and cheap and in season, and for a few more days last month, I still had run of my landlady's superbly tricked-out kitchen in Belleville. So the Native Companion and I invited over a crowd of friends and asked that everyone bring either oysters or decent Chablis.

Then we got shuckin'. Or everyone else did. I concentrated on putting the finishing touches to an enormous pot of clam-and-cockle chowder.*

As occurs at least once on most oyster-themed evenings, my friend and colleague A managed to stab her palm rather deeply.

But she's a trooper: we patched her up and shucked onwards. The real casualty of the evening, I'm afraid, was a magnificent bottle of 2008 Domaine de Pattes Loup Chablis that I managed to shatter on the kitchen floor before we'd even taken a sip.** I know the wine from other occasions, and am ruefully confident it would have been the wine highlight of the evening, had I not dropped it on the way to the fridge.

Consolation came in the form of the shimmering, savoury 2005 Chablis "Clos Béru" by Château Béru my friend D brought. We tasted it beside their basic Chablis from 2008, which I'd picked up from the same cave on a different occasion.

Both were very well-made, the fresher Chablis normale being just less-concentrated and higher in acid, as you'd expect. It was kind of like the difference between Canadian power-pop band Sloan's spikey, enjoyable, but superficial debut album, and their more baroque, emotionally nuanced later work:

It must be admitted though, that on these occasions, where you have a lot of tipsy people standing around grinning splashing oyster liquor everywhere, the simple stuff is perfectly acceptable, if not preferable. Ideally you want something crisp, high acid, mineral, and chalky, a little salty even. None of these are advanced or secondary flavors that take time to develop in bottle, which flavors, at any rate, might have the effect of outperforming the oysters themselves.

I'll probably get crucified for saying this, too, but the oysters I've had here in France, from everywhere from open air markets to fine restaurants, have uniformly been nowhere near as complex as ones from the Northeast or Northwest of the US.*** I'm not going to press the issue, since I don't know enough about contemporary oyster production or the factors therein which most affect quality, but there it is.

One aspect of French oyster service I might more meaningfully criticise is the tendency here to place more emphasis on the size of the shell than on where, precisely, the oyster derives from. Invariably they're advertised as coming from just Bretagne, a huge swath of coast, or less often the Ile d'Oleron. "Utah Beach" is most specificity you seem to get, and without other small, well-known, established areas of origin to compare these oysters to, the meaning of the appellation is diminished. Compared to all this vagueness, the way a great restaurant presents oysters in Boston seems downright academic:

The oyster list at Neptune Oyster, in Boston. Imaged swiped from  lizziee.wordpress.com.
Speaking of academic, our special guest that evening was my friend J, an acclaimed poet, teacher and lit mag editor who'd just arrived in Paris for her yearly writing retreat. She brought me a copy of one of her books and was kind enough to dedicate it before she left, after a hecatomb of bivalves, several litres of Chablis, and some improvised rhubarb-rhum cocktails courtesy of my friend J from Experimental Cocktail Club.

*Originally I wanted to do a classic clam-only chowder. I elected to use cockles, an overwhelmingly large proportion of cockles, when I realized how wincingly expensive clams are here, especially when compared to oysters. Oysters: about 8eu / kg at my market. Clams: 20eu / kg. I shake my head, remembering that in Boston you basically can't GIVE clams away, they're so cheap and plentiful.

**Z, P: I still owe you a bottle.

***An exception: those that arrive on Wednesdays at 11ème creperie West Country Girl are pretty fantastic. The last I had there were identified as deriving from Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue, and they possessed an earthy, expressive richness that was pretty singular.  

The Pico Chablis I broke like an idiot and the Château Béru wines are all available at:

Spring Boutique
52, rue de l'Arbre Sec
75001 PARIS
Metro: Louvre-Rivoli
Tel: 01 58 62 44 30

I tend to buy my shellfish from the stand at the entry to le marché de La Villette (Metro: Belleville) on Saturdays, but I really can't purport to be an expert on shellfish.

Related Links:

Fall Wine Preview at Spring Boutique
Chandon de Briailles critique at Spring Boutique
José Peña Sardines at Spring Boutique
Japon - Alsace dinner at the landlady's place
Sipping Domaine de Pattes Loup Chablis at Spring Buvette

David Lebovitz on West Country Girl
Meg Zimbeck on West Country Girl


  1. For all your bi-valve anecdotal needs, I recommend "The Big Oyster" written by Mark Kurlansky who makes a convincing argument on how the History of NY goes shucker in hand with the oyster.

  2. thanks mlk! i need recommendations like that, since i'm usually pretty wary of histories based around particular subjects like that; they're often kind of argumentative and partisan re: the prime historical relevance of their subject.

    what i'd really like to read would be a book examining flavor profiles, salt content, manners of preparation etc of the world's oysters on a region by region basis. i wonder if such a book exists?