Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oysters at Harrods

First published Canberra Times 15 June 2011
I can only just reach the kitchen tabletop, which is covered with the usual seersucker cloth. Dad is home for lunch and laid out in front of him are a dozen oysters freshly harvested from the lake, buttered white bread, vinegar and pepper. With my elbows on the table, I watch him intently as he slowly and precisely seasons each oyster. His adam’s apple moves as he swallows, savouring the flavour of each slippery mollusc as it slides down. He offers me one, and I close my eyes. It tastes like I am eating the sea, swallowing gulps of water in a pounding surf. This is my first taste of oysters.
It's a far cry from the serene elegance of Harrods London Caviar House Oyster Bar where we each slide back a dozen cold, briny oysters and share a bottle of champagne. The rococo style decor of the Fish Hall with its real-life fish sculpture that adorns the wall, attracts curious customers. Some turn up their noses in disgust at the briny and fishy odour, while others make it a photo opportunity. The entertainment only intensifies this decadent experience for us.  
Our bubbly Spanish waitress suggests we each go with a mixed half dozen to start with, then choose our favourites for the next half dozen. She carefully selects our oysters, smelling each one before she expertly shucks and plates them.  They are presented to us neatly nestled in their pearly shells, accompanied by a lemon quarter enrobed in muslin and a flute of lively, citrusy champagne.
Our mixed half dozen includes;  Fines de Claires -  cultivated in a ‘claire’ at low stock density and high salinity levels; the Mediterranean -  a rock  oyster from Montpelier; Portland Royals -  large rock oysters grown in Portland, Dorset along with the smaller Princesses; and the Loch Ryan, a native from Scotland.  I go with the Loch Ryan for its distinctive, mineral and salty flavours.  The flavour difference between oysters is surprising; some taste of seaweed and mermaids while others are just plain salty.
Two dressing options are provided, the traditional French Shallot dressing or the classic zingy Japanese style dressing, reminding us of another memorable oyster experience at our own Tetsuya’s restaurant.  
In my observation, oyster eaters (the human, not the bird variety) fall into two categories. There are those that slide them back quickly, straight from the shell, sucking out the juice; and those that treat them like a good wine, a slight chew, aerating to allow the flavours to cross the palate, and then swallow. The distinction also applies to the choice of dressing, with many “purists” believing them an unnecessary accoutrement. The other camp will immediately reach for anything from lemon and pepper to soy, wasabi, Tabasco or whatever; the world is their oyster. For oyster novices, a dressing can help overcome the squeam factor by providing a welcome flavour distraction to a texture that can be challenging. 
Speaking of squeam and the perils of oyster-eating, I am reminded of a birthday celebration dinner at a Canberra restaurant for our daughter some years back. She bravely tries an oyster for the first time and it contrives to wrap itself around her braces like some sort of sea monster. Horrified at the taste and texture, she spends much of the rest of the evening removing the sinew from her teeth and her expensive meal from her stomach. She has not tried one since.
Back in Paris a few days earlier, on a quest for an oyster meal, we seek out the bistro Le Rocher du Cancale at number 78 Rue Montorgueil. An interesting menu is displayed on the window, that includes Cancale oysters, but disappointment rules when we find it is closed tonight.  Our oyster feast will have to wait until we reach London.

The bistro takes its name from the French seaside resort of Cancale, noted for its oyster production, dating back to Roman times. Opened in 1846, this traditional bistro is one of Paris’s oldest, famous for its neo-classical d├ęcor and delicately carved facade that includes a wooden sculpture that depicts oysters growing on rocks. The interior walls are decorated with paintings by Paul Gavarni, which he gradually painted each time he came in for lunch. 

An earlier and swankier rendition of this restaurant, located at number 59, was a favourite rendezvous of the Parisian elite, including Balzac, who came here for its specialty oysters. Back then, the Rue Montorgueil was the terminus for carts that hauled shellfish from the north coast to Paris, and Cancale oysters were, and remain among the best. The horses that drew the carts from the coast were exchanged with others at rest points along the way, to ensure the oysters arrived fresh.   

With elbows on the bar, and the detritus of our oyster feast in front of us, I sink deeper into the soft leather of the bar stool. I have sated the craving that had been left disappointingly unsatisfied by Cancale’s and I am reminded of a seersucker covered kitchen table, my dad and my first revelatory taste of oysters. Reality returns as Harrods starts mobilising shoppers for its evening closing and the bubbly waitress clears the dishes. But I have swallowed the sea.
Shallot dressing
2 french shallots, finely chopped
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Combine all ingredients and spoon over oysters. 

Tets’ dressing
Adapted from the book Tetsuya’s
1 tsp finely grated ginger
60ml rice wine vinegar
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
90ml grapeseed oil
½ tsp fresh lemon juice
¼ red onion, chopped finely
1 tbsp chopped fresh chives
Whisk together the ginger, vinegar, sugar, soy, oils and lemon juice or shake them in a screw-top jar. Add the red onion. When ready to serve spoon half the dressing over the oysters and put the rest into a small bowl for the table.  Sprinkle with the chives and serve.  Photos by Steve Shanahan