An Appetite for Paris

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Jon Rowley, Oyster Maven

in Interviews - Personalities

  


Oyster maven Jon Rowley and I each had our first oyster vicariously through Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

I was also moved and inspired by a passage in the same chapter when after observing a beautiful young girl seated at a nearby table he resumes writing and when he looks up she is gone but he writes: “I have seen you beauty, and you belong to me now whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again…” but that is another story.

We met under the clock at Metro Odeon next to the statue of Danton and walked down the rue de L’Ancienne Comedie to the oldest café in Paris, Le Procope, founded in 1686 by Francesco Procopio and scene of conversations between Ben Franklin and Voltaire, who is reputed to have drunk 40 cups of coffee a day. It has since morphed into a destination for tourists and bourgeois Parisians.

We sat down and immediately ordered a dozen of the plump speciales de Guillardeau and a demi of Muscadet, our preferred Quincy being unavailable. As the oysters were delivered I asked Jon to explain what to look for in an oyster.

You see the light dancing off the liquor? They’re very fresh. That’s the first thing I look for. And then the French shuck oysters differently than we do in America. They don’t sever the adductor muscle on the bottom so it’s easier to have a perfectly shucked oyster. I like to see an oyster that has been shucked so well that it doesn’t even know that it was shucked, laying there glistening in it’s juices.

The best oysters are fat. You may remember in Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter–they invited fat oysters to go for a walk with them.

This white material in the oyster meat is glycogen that the oyster has stored up in the winter for reproducing and at this time of year (February) the glycogen will make them sweet if they’re fat and firm with a bite to them.

At home when we eat them the shucker severs them on the bottom. In France if they are served with the adductor muscle requiring a fork to eat them you miss at least half of the experience.

You may not know it but your fingers have tastebuds. When you pick the oyster up it’s cold, it’s rough, there’s nothing else like it. Shortly after you pick it up you start to salivate because you anticipate the taste. And if it is very fresh and came for good waters there’s an aroma.

So now we’ve engaged two of our senses and haven’t even got to the eating of the oyster. The next step is to just tip it back and slurp the oyster and when the oyster enters the mouth it’s bit like French kissing a mermaid-very special.

And then you chew the oyster very well so that it goes to every part of your palate. After that taste the oyster wine. There aren’t many wines that go with oysters. Since you are eating the oysters one at a time you don’t want anything in the wine to linger. You want the wine to just cut clean so you look for something cold, dry and crisp.

We delightfully slurped, chewed and drank until all was gone and Jon described his awakening to oysters: “ It came after reading the Hemingway book and I took the metro to Vavin and sat on the terrace at Le Dome and ordered a dozen oysters that cost all of the money that I had to my name.

Two days later we met on the terrace of Le Dome and recreated Jon’s Proustian memory with a dozen of the large, flat, fat Cancales  #00 from Brittany accompanied by a 2006 Saint–Veran from Burgundy.

Jon pronounced them the best of this trip and he has been all over own sampling. It was getting late and we both had meetings when the waiter arrived with another platter of 12 thinking that one of our nods was a command for more. Before he could take it away we accepted and finished off the bottle that had been placed on our table with the first order.

The director, Didier, who has been on site for 33 years came by and after Jon effusively praised the oysters returned with another round of coffee and snifters of a 20 year-old calvados.

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