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Gourmet Highway: The Year of the Oyster

By Doc Lawrence.

“Charming oysters I cry: My masters, come buy, So plump and so fresh, So sweet is their flesh.” Oysters, by Jonathan Swift.

My oyster journey began in the Florida Panhandle fishing village of Carrabelle, a lovely place on the Gulf where Atlantans like my father would go for a weekend, sometimes taking me, to catch grouper, red snapper and trout. Sitting on the dock when I was 10 years old, my dad opened what appeared to be a rock and ate something inside. He repeated this and saw I was watching and opened another, asking me to turn it up and eat it. I did, half frightened by the horrible creature inside, and found that it tasted like what I can only describe as the sea with a little added flint.

With each year, my love of oysters has only intensified, becoming a rite of passage into adolescence. A relative owned a fish market on the site where today the Atlanta Braves play baseball, so oysters, always Apalachicola, were always available. I learned to make red cocktail sauce before I could drive a car and when I went off to college, I found that raw oysters with cold beer made everything better.

The Gulf Coast was only 20 miles south of Tallahassee, prompting regular excursions to seafood shacks in St. Marks, Alligator Point, Panacea and places with no name. Remembrances are priceless: a few dozen on the half shell with cold Blue Ribbon beer, a jukebox playing Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Elvis and jitterbugging with young women in bikinis. Wine wasn’t served, but you could get smoked mullet or a soft-shell crab sandwich to take a break from the oyster marathon.

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The Oyster Experience

Kit Wohl’s latest coffee table book, The P & J Oyster Cookbook, (Pelican Publishing Company, 2010), inspires me to spend more time on the subject of oysters from Florida’s heralded Apalachicola oysters to the regal Kumamoto of the Pacific Northwest. An acclaimed author and artist based in New Orleans, Wohl’s masterpiece is loaded with oyster recipes from some of the world’s most famous restaurants and the photography is stunning.

Ernest Hemingway’s tender posthumously published classic, A Moveable Feast, recalls his days in Paris just after World War I. Married with a new child, still crippled by a terrible war wound and starving on a freelance journalist’s pay, Hemingway squirreled a few francs and often went to a nearby café for oysters and wine. His words resonate: “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.”

My initiation into the brave new world of wine and oysters was during youth at Antoine’s, the oldest family-owned restaurant in America and the grand dames of the French Quarter. I followed in the footsteps of other who dined there from Charles DeGaulle, FDR, Winston Churchill, Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams who, I’m told, began dinner with a few raw oysters and followed them with some baked on the half shell, including Oysters Rockefeller which was invented in Antoine’s kitchen. The waiter poured chilled white Burgundy and the experience topped beer by a mile and I recalled that day on the dock in Carrabelle. I was losing my innocence.

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Wines That Work

With the colder months, oysters are not just safer but tastier. Longing for them is natural, my instinctive need to be close to the ocean with delicious fresh seafood and great wines at hand.

Tim McNally and wife Brenda Maitland are mainstays of the New Orleans Food and Wine Experience and both are gourmet journalists in the Big Easy. Their advice is credible “Champagne,” says McNally, who hosts “The Wine Show” each Sunday (www.wistradio.com), “or high-end American sparkling wine are fantastic. I have not had such good luck with Prosecco or Cavas paired with raw oysters on the half shell. Also look to something very crisp in the white range, like a Muscadet or a Sancerre with really cold oysters. Even a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But with all of these wines, the minute you add another flavor or ingredient to the oyster, then these wines don’t fit. With Oysters Rockefeller, bubbly works well. We enjoy chargrilled oysters flavored with cheese and garlic sauce, and I’d try one of the new, strong American Pinot Noirs. Oyster Bienville can work with Pinot Noir or Merlot.

Antoine’s is famous for their Oysters Foch, (recipe is in Wohl’s book), which are fried and topped with pate and a very rich Colbert sauce. McNally advises that “this takes a pretty big wine like a nice cru bourgeois red from the Medoc, or a Savigny-les-Beaune from Burgundy.”

During my oyster experiences, I find Champagne or the great wines of Burgundy always reliable. They seem comfortable with the tastes of the sea. And when everything blends and becomes so nearly perfect, I am very happy.

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Flavors and More Magazine – January 2010

One Response to “Gourmet Highway: The Year of the Oyster”

  1. I ate at Antoine’s for the 1st time during the mid-80’s. I was amazed by the guest book. It was a record in American history. Heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan and Buffalo Bill Cody were also among the illustrious personalities on the guest list.

    The service was second to none, and I mean that quite literally. For me, Antoine’s became the measuring stick by which all future dining experiences would be measured.

    Over twenty years later, I still feel the same.

    -Jim

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