One of the few inexpensive pleasures available in Paris at this dreary time of low spirits, empty pockets, and wet feet is a dégustation d'huîtres, for this is also the height of the oyster season.
What with half a dozen Portuguaises and a glass of wine at little more than a dollar and a dozen Belon with half a bottle of Chablis for only three or four, even the most stringent budget can afford to let a ray of sunshine break through the gloom.
The flat, round, succulent Belon – or Marennes, or Arcachon according to whether it comes from Brittany, Saintonge or Guyenne – has been delighting the inhabitants of France for as long as anyone knows. In Roman times special relays are said to have galloped furiously all the way to Rome to place them – live – on the emperor's table.
The Portuguaise, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer, introduced into France literally by accident. In 1857 a ship carrying Portuguese oysters ran aground in the Gironde estuary and was forced to jettison its load. The live sunken cargo took immediate advantage of this unexpected reprieve and proceeded to implant itself firmly. By the end of the century the intruder had very nearly crowded out the more delicate native.
Fortunately, since then severe measures have limited its spread and a somewhat uneasy coexistence has evolved between the two nationalities.
Portuguaises are hardy and grow quickly, but they do not have the noblesse of the native oyster. Their thick, rough shell forms a curved oblong and the flesh is grayish-green and limper than the beige-colored Belon. They are commonly called "claires" or "fines de claires," which means nothing because all oysters eaten today are grown in claires, or beds, and dragging for wild ones is illegal.
There are, however, "spéciales," which fully deserve the title because they have been carefully tended in uncrowded beds to make them fatter and tastier.
But the oyster is only half the pleasure of a dégustation. There is the whole delightful business of garnishes and sauces and of selecting a wine to accompany your living fare.
The thought of eating something alive, by the way, may be a little hard to stomach, but a dead oyster will be considerably harder. Although at about 10° C (50° F) unopened oysters will keep four to five days, you should never buy any that are more than 72 hours old, and you can demand to see the basket label with the date of shipping.
Oysters are best served on a platter, resting on a bed of seaweed and crushed ice – which should not be so thick as to chill the taste out of them – and garnished with rye bread or whole-wheat bread, butter and lemon halves.
There is also a strong sauce consisting very simply of a couple of finely minced shallots in about half a cup of wine vinegar, to which some add roughly ground pepper. This is fine with mussels (moules) and clams (praires and palourdes), but it rather overpowers the delicate taste of oysters and it has the added disadvantage of tending to kill the taste of the wine.
Today for nearly everyone this will be a dry white, most often Chablis, which is considered to be to oysters what butter is to bread. It has a subtle quality that draws out and enhances the rich fatness of Portuguaises spéciales and the fresh springy crispness of clams.
Also very pleasant with these are any "petits vins" without a pronounced "goût de terroir," or taste of the soil, like Savoie whites, Pouilly-sur-Loire, Pouilly-fuissé, Macon-viré, and Muscadet, although this last does not really have enough character for oysters. To be avoided as too pronounced in taste are such individuals as Sancerre or Pouily-fumé, not to be confused with the two Pouillys mentioned above.
Choosing a wine for the noble flat oyster is quite another matter. Chablis is very good but in some ways it does not go quite far enough with these great gentlemen – or should one say ladies? It is hard to know because oysters are hermaphrodites.
They spawn in the summer, which is the real reason they are usually not eaten then. Although they are still quite edible, it does seem a bit self-defeating to eat them just when they are busy making millions more for the winter months to come.
Whatever the sex of these noble creatures, some people prefer a white Graves or a Loire Valley Coulée de Serrant with them. Others like Mercurey blanc, Meursault, or Montrachet, but the heavy bouquet of such fine burgundies has a tendency to hide the flavor of the oyster.
A few dedicated wine merchants and oyster growers still swear by Sauternes and Barsac. Recently there has been just the tiniest swing back toward these wines although they have generally been out of favor for some time.
They carry a double risk for Americans because such a choice will almost certainly be put down to crass ignorance rather than connoisseurship. If, however, your skin is thick enough to put up with a few disapproving stares and disparaging remarks, you have a magnificent treat in store for you. And you can comfort yourself with the thought that the great gourmets of the nineteenth century will be nodding their heads and smiling down upon you.
The marrow-like sweetness of these golden wines is the perfect complement to the rich delicacy of Belon, the marine finesse of Marennes and the sweet smoothness of Arcachon. For the very ultimate in refinement order a dozen large Marennes or Belon, spread foie gras thinly over the kind of buttered toast used for caviar, and uncork a bottle of Château d'Yquem. It is no use pretending this will be inexpensive, but who is going to quibble over the price of admission to paradise?