Sunday, 6 July 2008

Miracle of the Morlaisen

The French
also had one miraculous slice of luck in this revival. Small numbers of the Portugese oyster (crassostrea angulata) had been transplanted successfully from the river Tagus, which had been known as a rich source of oysters and other fish from Roman times. Then in 1868 The Morlaisen, carrying Portugese oysters from Setubal bound for England hit a tempest off Arcachon and sought shelter off Bordeaux. The oysters started to smell and the captain Patoizeau ordered them to be dumped near Verdon at the very tip of the Pointe du Médoc. Far from being dead, the oysters took to the waters immediately and flourished. Within a few years the whole Gironde was once again thriving as an oyster centre.

There is some argument over the precise numbers but by 1910, where England was in serious decline the harvest was around 25 million oysters, compared to the revived French beds at 500 million.

Through the 20th century the French faced their share of crisis but with the almost military resources at their disposal the industry managed to stay buoyant.

Even after the abandonment of conscription and national service in 1983, they maintained the deeply Gallic and Napoleonic philosophy of only awarding concessions to new oyster beds on strict criteria which included how many children an applicant might have under 16; how many years in the navy or at sea and, more recently, demanding educational diplomas for which there is now a three year degree course.

Their ingenuity and decisiveness has been needed to combat new threats apart from overfishing.

As in England, the native oysters were badly hit by the Black Death of the 1920s and then more recently martellia in 1974 and bonomia in 1979 and 1984 and are now a fraction of what they used to be. The native round oyster has been decimated. Only five percent of the native flat oyster deposits remain.

The Portugese oyster was ravaged from 1949 by a terminal virus called simply Gill Disease or maladie des branchies and eventually the last link back to the Morlaisen’s cargo succumbed completely in the 1970s.

The French took a draconian and audacious decision to import the Japanese oyster (crassostrea gigas) directly from Japan and second generation cultures from British Columbia, in Canada. Now 98% of French oysters are what used to be called Pacifics. Even the Belon will not always be a flat round native oysters, though it may be, but the Pacific fattened in the Brittany waters.

The science though came from the new world.

French oysters - the vision of Victor Coste

The effects of overfishing were more immediate and earlier than in Britain, but where in England the crisis was met by helpless chaos, the French responded vigorously.

The oyster beds were regarded as a precious national asset. And their laws were different. Where the freedom of the individual that the barons had laid down in the Magna Carta had somehow managed to impose itself by association on the creeks and estuaries in England, the French had no such qualms. Francis 1 in 1544 and then Henri III in 1584 asserted the royal prerogative to own and farm the oyster beds in the national interest and had even dismantled private fishing which is why, in the Cancale example, it was the Admiralty that was called in to look at the state of the beds when the harvests started to decline. In the Gallic presumption, the state owned the bounty of the shorelines and would administer them as it saw fit. For the oyster that meant for the benefit of the people, just as Colne in Essex had also supposed.

In 1840 the navy also had to be called in to patrol the beds around Arcachon to protect the oysters from poachers, but it was already too late.

The French were spurred into collective action. The brilliant embryologist Victor Coste, or to give him his full name Jean Jaques Marie Cyprien Victor Coste had seen the cultivation techniques still being used in the Bay of Naples at Lago Fusaro from the Roman times. It had been revived 100 years before when King Ferdinand IV of Bourbon introduced a park for mussels and then oysters "that were gathered from the pots, reeds, faggots, palisades and from the bottom of the Lake”. That was 1764.

The enthusiastic Coste asked Napoleon III for 8,000 francs to restock the Bay of St Brieuc, west of St Malo. He would import oysters into the bay; pay for a boat to guard them, and then following the Italian example he would lay up stones, faggots and other collectors, so that when the oysters spawned, the young would have something on which to attach themselves; and the fishermen would also have something on which to attach their attentions. A year later in 1859, an elated Coste reported to Napoleon that the experiment had been a magnificent success. As evidence he quoted one single faggot carrying more than 20,000 spat. He recommended all French coastline and even the colonies of Corsica and Algeria follow his lead, except where the shoreline was too muddy. Napoleon, enterprisingly, acceded.

There was a second breakthrough at about the same time, this one credited to a stonemanson called M. Bouef at the Ile de Re, near La Rochelle. Not being a confidante of Napoleon, his first name, or names, has been lost but his contribution might be seen to have been as important. He noticed that in muddy waters, oysters would cling to stone sea walls. He reclaimed low tidal muddy flats by building small stone walls into small parks and laying the bottom with stones. This worked too. No longer dependent on the vagaries of the wild, the French realised they could bring in oysters from around Europe as spat and grow them on in their beds and specially created parks. Soon they were importing so much that they had depleted nearly all the seed stock from Spain: 20 million oysters harvested in 1860 became 350 million by 1907.

This approach was used for the nation’s most famous oyster, the Belon. Again it was Coste who had the vision. The Belon comes from the Aven-Belon river, although the name is not so historic as it likes to claim and is often misused. This is not a nursery or even a growing area, but the plankton rich waters are where oysters are taken to be finished before going to market, and will be at least three years old, some just get a quick bath and then back into the lorry, where others (speciales) are left for months.

Coste takes the credit for seeing that the richness of iron and the mix of sea and clear waters here would make Belon an ideal environment for oyster culture and persuaded one August Constant Solminihac to move his family from the Perigourd to plant the region in 1864, taking his first spat from Belgium. Later Coste was to revive the bays at Toulon and Brest with oysters imported from England. Solminihac, perceptively saw there was no need to be a grower at all when the oysters could be spawned and grown elsewhere, but could then be fattened up to effect and marketed from his river waters. His family still trade as Huitres du Chateau Belon. Four other companies now operate the concessions Thaëron, Cadoret, Noblet, and Thieblemont and seek to enforce strict labelling and control of the name by registering stocks and recording how long they have been kept in the Belon waters.

Coste’s bureaucracy however was intense. Inspections followed the Cancale model. Summer fishing was still banned. Concessions were awarded to naval conscripts. National service had been introduced as an alternative to press ganging, and an oyster concession became one of the pensions to the job. Often these were generous stipends with grants being awarded to retired sailors in terms of free spat, free stock, free tiles and other essentials for a would be oysterman. From Napoleon’s point of view it was a deliberate exercise in social engineering. He wanted oysters to feed the poor and he wanted profitable work for his former sailors.

In fairness Coste’s approach was not an immediate success, but it did revive both the Quiberon and the Arcachon, the latter only after decades of the strictest enforcement policies where in some years fishing was only allowed by hand for one hour a year which did not stop as many as 5,000 gatherers turning up for that single hour. But in the year of Coste’s death 1877, these beds suddenly revived dramatically. In 1880, 195 million oysters were taken. The number of concessions to ex-sailors rose from 483 to 4,239.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Buy oysters direct online

Buying oysters online is a treat, although digging out the farms between the London travel cards, rock bands, girl’s night outs and American sites is a bit tricky. Here is a quick list of suppliers in the UK who deliver within 24 hours.

Oyster plate collecting

Another side phenomenon accompanied the rise of the oyster in urban dining…plates designed just for oysters. All the great French and German companies produced specialised, highly decorative plates, usually with six indentations for the oysters and a seventh for lemon or a sauce, with slight variations depending on whether the oysters were to be served on ice, in the shell or shucked. Those for ice alone are the oldest, superceded by those with indentations because they were less messy but also the rough shells scratched the delicate patterns and so these gave way to the small shapes, which could just take a single raw oyster out of the shell. Small two and three pronged forks were fashioned to bring the oyster into line with the new etiquette of the table. Originally such things were made for aristocratic chateaux but slowly the middle classes acquired the enthusiasm to have appropriate plates and cutlery.

Naturally the plates were decorated. Some of the most vibrant and rustic primitivism come from the oyster region of Quimper, more supremely elegant often floral and pale coloured from Limoges - above - , or more modern powerful abstracts from Provence as in Vallauris; artistic fish inspired shapes from the German manufactuer Waechtersbach; glass from Lalique and also some individual touches from Union Porcelain Works of Greenpoint, New York, in the late 1800s.

In England Doulton made two differently patterned with flowers around 1900; one of their former workers George Jones made a colourful set with large replica shells around the outside centred on a small egg cup divot in the centre for the condiment; and the smaller, later maker Samuel Lear produced a Portuguese inspired sunflower design.

Herbert Minton first introduced his vibrant lustrously glazed majolica at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. This made oyster plates affordable to the Victorian middle classes where porcelain and other fine china had been the concern only of the royal and grandest houses. His oyster plate design though he borrowed from Sevres in France.

The oyster plate still has its loyal devotees. There is an oyster society that collects plates at; there was an online museum at but this seems to have fallen by the wayside but the auction site lists daily sales – more than six pages at the last look with 260 plates for trade. Some plates fetch prices upwards of $3,000 though most go for a fraction of that. Another source is with plates around $300. New designs can still sell for £175.
And, of course, there are essential books for the enthusiasts such as Collecting Oyster Plates by Jeffrey Snyder or the rival Oyster Plates by Jim & Vivian Karsnitz.

Predictably with oysters, even in the sedate world of plate making, controversy stalks, in this case the validity or otherwise of reproducing old designs. Collectors are appalled.

Marco Pierre White - oysters with Sauterne jelly

In the days that the mercurial Marco Pirre White used to cook in the French style he refined his way with oysters in the same genre. When he first made his name he served poached oysters back in their shells on a small bundle of tagliettelle garnished with caviar and sauced with a beurre blanc. He then rationalised the oyster for restaurant purposes at the Mirabelle to create an epic cold dish, the shell lined with a puree of spinach, the oysters poached lightly in Sauterne and gelatine and then set to cool in the shell, served garnish with crème fraiche and or caviar.

Roellinger - a scavenger's curry of oysters

Olivier Roellinger at Maisons de Bricourt in Brittany works closer to the water than the others and is a part of the oyster culture but sometimes features this daring dish on the menu using curry spices for the seasoning, embellishing a teaspoon of basic curry powder, with coriander, powdered saffron, turmeric all spice, cinnamon, dried green mango powder, just the sort of contents that might have spilled off a spice shipment smashed on the rocks off St Malo (but would not be out of place either in India where oysters are given a dry crumb coating seasoned with such spices and then fried or grilled quickly). Roellinger though conservatively uses less than a teaspoon to season his stock reduction.

Oysters with cabbage

Boil half a litre of white wine to reduce its volume, add chicken stock and 2 ml of the spice mix. Infuse 20 minutes. Separate four prime cabbage leaves, poach and then refresh in cold water and set aside. Cut two squid into strips and sear briefly in a non stick pan. Open the oysters and put the liquor in a pan separately
Heat the cabbage leaves in the oyster juice with some butter Reheat the wine and stock infusion, bind it with more butter
Place a cabbage leaf in a warm shallow bowl. Slip the drained oysters into the buttered infusion, which should be warm not boiling. Arrange the oysters in each cabbage leaf. Coat with the infusion, which has been enriched with oyster flavour. Garnish with the salad burnett, nori and lamb's lettuce.

Bocuse - oyster soupe Lyonnaise

Paul Bocuse, the legendary and avuncular totem of La Cuisine Francaise, manages to evoke both the classicism of a vichyssoisse with the local slant of adding grated Gruyere at the end but retaining the complexity of texture with fried bread. There is more than a nod here to a Marseille style fish soup with its Gruyere, croutons and rouille. Lyons, of course, would have been able to pick any ingredient it wanted trading north or south along the Rhone, so this Lyonnaise variation may genuinely be a reflection of approaches long past.

Oyster Soupe Lyonnaise

Sweat three leeks in melted butter till soft, about seven minutes Add four peeled and cubed russet potatoes, mix well, cover with six cups of water and simmer 20 minutes. Set aside. Fry some cubed bread for croutons
Liquidise the soup. Add a cup of cream and a grating of nutmeg and return to the pan
Add a quart of shucked oysters and their liquor and poach till they curl.
Lay the soup up in warm bowls, top with croutons, a sprinkle of Gruyere, parsley and paprika. Spoon chowder into soup bowls; top each with a few croutons and sprinkle with Gruyére, parsley, and paprika. Serve with any additional croutons, cheese, and parsley on the side.
There are other recipes, not dissimilar where the leek, often a favoured pairing, and potato are used as a sauce to serve in the shell with the oysters laid back on top and grilled, though these do not seem as well thought out as the Bocuse soup

Guerard - oysters with coriander and coffee

At Michel Guerard’s Eugenie Les Bains they are served freshly opened with a zest of ginger, coriander and a Chantilly of green (unroasted) coffee.

Lucas Carton - Belons with Bellota Bellota

At Troisgros in Roanne oysters are served warm with sorrel and cumin. At Lucas Carton in Paris - above - large Belon oysters are roasted in their sealed shells, and served with white butter sauce with nuts, toasts and Bellota-Bellota Spanish ham plus a glass of Manzanilla sherry to compliment the ham. Herein at least there is some homage to the Basques from around Arcachon where they are served on the shell with little crepinette sausages (truffled for Christmas), bread, and the local white wine Entre Deux Mers. Although that history has been hijacked by Bordeaux the proper progeny is to the Basques by dint of the chorizo and their specially grown peppers that signal the dish as Basque, not Bordelais.

Taillevant - oysters with truffles

The big French restaurants have all been tempted to set down their own essay on how to best treat the oyster, although there are no hints of ancient links to regions or styles, just the luxury of truffles or, as with the Duitch masters paintings before them, to exotic spices

Taillevant in Paris, serves four oysters parcelled up in buttered foil with two sliced scallops, truffles, sliced leeks, a splash of mineral water (!), the juice from the oysters, salted butter. Bake five minutes.

French gastronomy

The oyster takes it place in the pantheon of French gastronomy, but as Graham Robb points out in his Discovery of France, French provincial cooking was not of any repute until the last century or until it got to Paris and was enobled by the huge brigades of the kitchens of the royal households and exported as the cuisine of royalty across Europe.

Escoffier, writing in 1907, only offers a dozen or so preparations (as against 30 or more for lobster) and none of them derive from the French provinces. He was typically extravagantly as in a puff pastry canapés filled with caviar and topped with an oyster as garnish. Lemon shrewdly goes with both. More recently, but from the same source, The Larousse Gastronomique rampantly pairs oysters with the full gamut of French sauces as if they were any other kind of fish and their main purpose was to glorify the cook’s true art of making sauces – Americaine (shellfish), Colbert (fried), Nantua (with crayfish), Normande (mushrooms and cream), Florentine (spinach), Mornay (cheese), Polonaise (horseradish), and also as a soufflés, gratinated, on skewers, in barquettes, in pastry cases, all of which reinforces the sense of glut and abundance inherited from an earlier era and an increased vocabulary.
Spinach is the most logical and usual accompaniment because of its supportive iron and any variation on egg, butter, and cream formed into an emulsion and cooked off in the shell under the grill has become a standard modern culinary shorthand.

D'Artagnan and the greening of oysters

From the Charente to the Gironde is an open oyster garden in the sea, at the heart is the Marennes-Oléron, famous for their greenish hue, caused by a single celled algae which forms on the bottom of the oyster parks in spring and colours the waters. There is a fable that surrounds the alleged discovery of this algae.

When the port of La Rochelle was besieged, which would date the discovery about 1627 (along with that of D’Artganan and the Three Musketeers who also fought there), some oysters were stashed away in the salt marshes for safekeeping. When they were retrieved, everyone was surprised at how they had turned green, eventually succumbing to the temptation to eat them. They found the flavour more delicate and subtle almost like liquid hazelnuts.

Although it turns the oyster green, the French call it blueing but have so far failed to explain or be able to replicate it in other bays or parks or even guarantee that the effect will reappear in the same park next year. Further south at Arcachon there is a similar effect, but these beds are now mainly used as a hatchery to supply the rest of France.

In the Mediterranean there are historic waters at Thau, where the Bouzigues oysters are grown on lines suspended near the surface of the water, which allows them to fatten faster than on sea beds because the natural plankton concentrates towards the surface, not the bed. The demarcation here of Special is kept for the smaller oysters harvested, which are then held back and put back in the waters for another year.