Monday, February 9, 2009

Oysters in Paris

Imagine this. You're standing looking out of sunny classical French windows overlooking a park in the apartment of good friends. A table, (come to the table) say your friends. You turn and see plates of beautiful fresh oysters topped with lemon wedges. A bottle of crisp Entre Deux-Mers wine waits to be opened.  It's a perfect Sunday in Paris.

In France more than 143,000 tons of oysters are produced and eaten every year. It may take only about three seconds to swallow an oyster, but it takes three to four years to raise one.  Like wine, oysters have different flavors depending on the region where they are raised. Oysters are rich in iron and low in calories and are purported to have strong aphrodisiac effects. The Greeks, who ate their oysters dipped in honey, tell how Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty who gave birth to Eros,  emerged from the ocean on the shell of an oyster.  The Romans knew her as Venus and she is depicted here in Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

About 98 percent of all oysters consumed in France are a variety known as creuses. The native oyster is the l'huître plate including the Belon, probably the best known variety. The native oyster fell victim to a more robust Portuguese creuses that made its way into France in the late 1880s. In the 1970s these Portuguese oysters succumbed to a virus and were replaced by a Japanese variety. Today most of the stock in France is a Japanese variety imported from Canada. The legendary Belon oyster of Brittany still exists, but they are fewer in number.  

Many years ago, we took a trip to Brittany.  It was the beginning of November and most hotels were about to close for the season.  For that reason, rooms were available in a charming hotel named Chez Melanie in the town of Riec-sur-Belon. 

At the time, I was reading a great book by John McPhee called A Roomful of Hovings.  The title story is about Thomas Hoving, the then director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  According to McPhee, Hoving used to come to Paris on buying trips for the museum.  To keep his mission a secret, the director would stay in a cheap hotel on the Boul'Mich, but every night he would eat Belon oysters washed down with champaigne.  

Could Belon oysters have any connection to Riec-sur-Belon  The next day I asked the hotel owner: "Do you have oysters around here?"  (Asking that is like going to the Champaigne region and asking if they have champaigne.) "Mais oui," came the incredulous reply. Needless to say, we dined that night on quantities of Belon oysters!  We couldn't afford the champagne.


A bientôt,


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor
To see more photos, click here


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