It’s twenty degrees here in Virginia—the perfect conditions in which to read the latest from our American in Paris, Jeffrey Greene. Turns out he has been hitting the French coast. Jeff’s last book with us, The Golden-Bristled Boar (out in paperback this April), was in part a culinary history; his next book, which concerns foraging and cooking wild edibles, will turn wholly to food matters, and he has kindly offered to send a steady stream of reports as he researches it. Some advice: be sure to read this one to the end…
The Louvre’s collection includes still-life paintings by the Dutch masters that render sumptuous foods—oysters in particular—with spectacular realism. One of the advantages of living in Paris is that you can simply stroll over to the Louvre and consult these works with your own eyes, in this case in the Richelieu Wing where rooms are dedicated to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch painting. There is no time better to visit a European art museum than in the “r” month of January, and I wanted to see for myself exactly what was going on with the Dutch artists and their singular obsession with oysters.
I wrote to my Dutch friend Geron de Leeuw, a food writer and chef, asking what the oyster represented to his country’s Golden Age still-life painters. He said that people believed oysters possessed aphrodisiac powers, and symbolically represented fertility and prosperity. “Rendering oysters was a bit naughty,” he added, “since they stood for sexual freedom in a time when Calvinism swept the Netherlands.”
Of course, the suggestive form of oysters adds to their sexual insinuations. In Jan Steen’s Girl Eating Oysters, an attractive young woman looks coquettishly at the viewer with an alluring smile while offering an opened oyster.
Oysters possessed other symbolic meanings, representing taste, sensuality, and the temporary pleasures of earthly existence. They are often featured in still lifes known as vanitas, lush cornucopias of foods (some barely eaten), half-finished glasses of wine, lemons with rinds peeled in a spiral signifying the unraveling of time, all caught in hyper-real stillness and masterful rendering of light as it glints off silver, glass, and perfect pools of oyster liquor.
While these paintings are stunning, I studied them for another reason: the oysters don’t look anything like the ones my father, brother, and I collected and ate during the years I grew up in New England, nor do they look like the most common oysters in France, a country famed since Roman times as Europe’s greatest oyster producer. Clearly, the seventeenh-century oysters in the paintings were rounder and flatter than the typical creuses, oysters with a cupped shell that are consumed worldwide.
Through the ages, oysters have reliably served humans. Even Neanderthals ate the original flat European oysters, probably more as “last-chance foods” rather than to bolster sexual prowess. Oyster shells have been fashioned into tools, jewelry, and false teeth; ground up for mortar; and pulverized for biomineralization to relieve osteoporosis. The oysters themselves provide zinc, iron, selenium, and vitamin B12, making them nature’s depression-fighting food. They contain the whole alphabet of vitamins as well as iodine, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, and copper—all contributing to general nutrition and bolstering the immune system. Their omega-3 fatty acids are good for the heart. Now, what the Dutch and just about everyone else claims about oysters being an aphrodisiac is supported by scientific studies on amino acids, specifically D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate. It’s hardly a wonder that Henry VIII held oyster orgies, Napoleon consumed them before battles, Voltaire and Rousseau ate them for inspiration, and Casanova enjoyed passing one between his lips and those of his lovers. Oysters even figure prominently in the “Party Girl Diet.”
It must be obvious that I’ve always been passionate about oysters, and now I find myself living in a true oyster-crazed country. Oysters come in all sizes and from a variety of locales—most notably, going from Normandy to the Aquitaine, Isigny, Cancale, Belon, Bourneuf, Marennes-Oléron, and Arcachon, all boasting perfect conditions for the most delectable produce. The French devour tons of oysters over Christmas and New Year’s, when 70 percent of the annual harvest is eaten. Of course, a good number of oyster lovers spend the holidays with gastroenteritis, but they don’t seem to consider it true cause-and-effect—a bad oyster—but just a bit of holiday bad luck.
I wanted to know more about the genuine European oysters, the ones in the vanitas paintings urging us to indulge earthly sensual pleasures while we still have the chance. I visited most of the major oyster-growing areas in France, including the mucky tidal estuary of the Balon River on the southern side of Brittany’s Finistere, literally land’s end, where Paul Gauguin once painted land- and seascapes. Gauguin also produced still lifes with oysters, and again the oysters resemble the original flat European variety, which many connoisseurs consider the ultimate oyster. These are now raised in the States, where they are prized for their meaty texture and the savor of sea and minerals.
While researching huîtres plates (Ostrea edulis), also known as Belons, I discovered a shocking relative, the wildest of all wild oysters, called a pied de cheval, or literally “horse’s foot.” While they share an uncanny round appearance, the oysters grow wider than a horse’s hoof. Pied de cheval can weigh as much as three pounds and live for thirty years or more, with one equivalent to six good-sized oysters. This enormous rare oyster, found in Normandy’s Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, is a specialty of certain restaurants. Most people, including the French, have never heard of them.
I watched an interview with a French chef who, rather than describing the overall sensation of eating the oysters, focused instead on three parts of the anatomy of the pied de cheval as if each were a wine. This oyster is perfectly equilibrated for flavor. The liver is soft, creamy, and sweet; the foot is muscular, musty, and chewy with fine, long-lasting taste; and the mantle, the tissue at the lip, is pleasantly bitter. The chef prepared the enormous oyster by cooking it very delicately until tepid and then adding a little cabbage and cream curry sauce.
These record-sized oysters, which have been found in the Chesapeake Bay and close to Humbolt, California, weighing in at more than eight pounds, seem almost large enough for Aphrodite, the love goddess and root of aphrodisiac, to have been conceived in. My favorite oysters are large but not huge, just a perfect mouthful. But the pied de cheval being a delicacy and an oddity intrigued me so much that I planned a trip the Bay of Saint-Michel just to see if I could find one.
I had no idea what I was doing. It’s not like you can dig these up or find them stuck to a rock, as they live in the middle of the English Channel. I hiked the shores above Granville, a major port, and found shells from pied de cheval everywhere, along with an enormous array of wild edibles. Clam diggers were more than a mile out on the surreal stretches of sand, their dogs running free in long elliptical orbits. No one from the fishing fleet from Granville was selling pied de cheval, so I drove past Mont Saint-Michel to Cancale on the western shore of the bay. Cancale is one of France’s most famous producers of oysters, and sure enough on the north side of the port there were at least eight stands selling and opening oysters for whole families, who sat along the boat ramp and ate dozens for lunch. It was as if we were transported to the nineteenth century, when families strolled to the port and snacked on oysters. The shore was covered with lemons.
On the farthest corner on the left was an uncommonly large, ruggedly handsome vendor with black hair who displayed a crate of pied de cheval. I couldn’t believe my luck and asked, “How much are these?”
“Each?” Even if it equaled a half-dozen oysters, this rare oyster seemed expensive. “Okay, I’ll take one. How should I cook it?”
“Cook it? Oh no, you don’t cook these. That’s criminal. Here, I’ll open it for you,” he offered. “Don’t put even a drop of lemon on it. It must be eaten just as is. Nothing is better,” he assured me.
A big man like him might be able to eat a pound of oyster in a gulp, but I was taken aback. I stopped him from opening it. “I will take it with me. I want my wife to taste it too.” I walked with the oyster in hand, feeling like a Greek discus-thrower. In the afternoon, I picked up my wife, Mary, at St. Malo train station, and we headed for Brittany to enjoy the weekend by the sea. Once in the car, I introduced her to my oyster and she was suitably shocked. “He’s huge! And so beautiful. Where did you find him?”
Author M. F. K. Fisher points out in Consider the Oyster that oysters have a peculiar habit of switching sexes, so one can never be sure of the gender. I settle on “it” instead of “him.” “I didn’t find it. I bought it,” I confessed, knowing this would be a bit of a letdown.
Meanwhile, Mary was more than happy just to admire the oyster with me, but had no intention of putting any of it in her mouth. I debated whether I should put it back in the sea or eat it raw to understand the savors and textures of the different parts. It traveled with me for three days, refrigerator-hopping, until we arrived in Paris; there I knew the oyster’s fate was sealed. I set it on the counter, and each time I walked into the room it would clamp shut, making the prospect of butchering it all the more painful. Mary was appalled by the thought that the oyster had become a kind of companion.
I downed a glass of Muscadet for nerve, reflected on the Dutch paintings and vanitas, while guessing at how old the oyster was. Maybe thirty? Certainly, neither Henry VIII nor Napoleon would hesitate to eat this oyster, though “Party Girls” might. I quickly cut the abductor muscle, and the oyster soon lay open, a veritable quarry: liver, gills, and mantle along with the rest of its nutritious anatomy. I honored the rare oyster and ate the sumptuous creature raw.
Check our blog regularly for future reports from Jeffrey Greene on his search for wild edibles. His book The Golden-Bristled Boar will be available in paperback in April.