Picture, if you will, the St-Antoine farmers’ market on the bank of the Saône in the middle of winter. It’s 9.30 in the morning, the mercury nudging a crisp three degrees. It’s New Year’s Day, and most of Lyon is closed for the public holiday, but it’s still a Sunday, so the market goes ahead, and so does the longstanding tradition of the morning visit to the oyster stalls.
A white marquee on the footpath houses five metres of trestle tables groaning with the small oyster boxes the French call bourriche. Monsieur Yannick, a producer, has set up his dégustation sur place for the day, opening oysters for the Lyonnaise faithful. A drinks cabin nearby coordinates wines and coffee for the oyster brunchees. Couples stroll in, order la douzaine and settle into the gaggle of plastic chairs and tables nearby. Dogs are leashed to the tables and retire for an hour’s oyster break. For 15 euros we slurp our way through a platter of number-threes with a glass of picpoul, the vin de rigueur for oysters anywhere south of La Rochelle.
Through Australian eyes, what do we see? Ordinary citizens embracing a brisk cold morning to promenade, meet friends, brunch on freshly opened oysters with a glass of wine at half-past nine in the AM. There are no food officers, no booze police, no running water. Just fresh luscious oysters, part of a Sunday cultural ritual – something you can trust. A French community food tradition where accessible oysters find an appreciative clientele.
Four days later, and we’re in Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, the market in Lyon’s third arrondissement. Standing around the oyster bar of Chez Léon are several trios of trench-coated businessmen, briefcases at their feet, sharing plates of oysters. Business is under discussion in between slurps of oysters. Morning meetings not over coffee, but over oysters from the Mediterranean, Quiberon, Brittany, Normandy, even Ireland.
I am genuinely surprised at Léon’s first question. “Do you like a full oyster, or not so full?” The question explodes our local myth that only full oysters are valid currency. Many French people, it seems, prefer a half-full oyster. It prompts an intriguing question for armchair experts: if most oysters in France are sold during the Christmas winter, and most in Australia are sold during the Christmas summer, can both be right? Or is the festive season itself the commercial driver? And what does that suggest about the conventional market wisdom of “oyster condition”? A furphy perhaps?
During the Yuletide month, the commercial role of oysters reaches its peak on France’s retail floors. Stacks of little wooden oyster boxes cram the aisles, as emblematic here as eggs at Easter, and promotional banners extoll one region’s oysters over another, and one brand over another. The scene is the same from the deluxe Parisian food-halls of Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché to ordinary urban supermarkets across France. The French home-cook, stocking up for the traditional fête de Noël feast, is spoilt for choice.
It’s a very different story back in Down Under. While in France anyone can readily purchase fresh un-opened oysters to shuck themselves at home, a lament we hear consistently during the oyster workshops we hold in Australia is that consumers still have trouble sourcing un-opened oysters. And this directly influences the other difference between oyster lovers in France and their Antipodean counterparts: our inability to shuck oysters ourselves. And why would we, when we almost never get the chance to practise? The long-term effect is that the pre-shuck culture becomes self-perpetuating, as people lose the skills and knowledge of oyster shucking.
In France, learning to shuck an oyster is de rigueur – a little like learning how to properly pull a cork from a bottle – and key to true oyster enjoyment. The realest oyster you can taste is one you’ve opened yourself, and it’s a pleasure I’d guess 80 per cent of us have never had the chance to enjoy. So pick up your knives, mes amis, embrace winter’s oyster bounty as our French friends do, and get a taste of what you’ve been missing.
ILLUSTRATION ANTONIA PESENTI
This article is from the July 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.