” Le plateau des fruits de mer” can be essential to a French Christmas and New Year as it is to balmy summer days by the sea. The fact that it may well be served in a grotesque ceramic boat is neither here nor there. Christmas Eve often means the gathering of several generations of a family sitting round a table covered in white linen, or even white paper, upon which are displayed the elevated trays of the freshest seafood of many types of shellfish preferably with lobster and crab and most certainly with a generous number of oysters. They tackle this feast with an arrangement of eating instruments and consider it a harmonious, pleasurable shared experience. This may be repeated during the Summer months but Christmas is a time when fishmongers are selling custom made platters in abundance.
At the very least everyone will be buying oysters by the box or at least a dozen from supermarkets stacked with boxes of oysters transported from the coasts of Brittany or Normandy. Alternately corners of the streets or outside small greengrocers there are small pop up stalls selling oysters which are graded by size numero zero (the largest) to numero 5 (smallest for garnish) and most people buying numero 3 or 4 but families buying boxes or 2 dozen. They are enjoyed as a starter for the Christmas meal with a glass of Champagne.
My personal introduction to oysters was when I was in my late teens when I was hiking through Northern France with a group of English and French students. We had met in the West coast of Ireland the year before in an International camp and it was evident at that time that the French boys were skilled at collecting shellfish and knew how to serve them. When we met them in France we camped in the grounds of various farms and were introduced to the delicacies of local delicious French soft cheeses,Crêpes aswell as cider and Calvados. The last visit was to the home of Alain who was about to join the French Navy for his National service. He happily took us out in his boat and after a coastal trip then moored in a small cove and told us wanted to give us a surprise. The next thing this swarthy French young man dived off the boat armed with a knife. He soon returned with a bag of oysters he had harvested deftly from the rock something he had being doing for several years. He then prepared them by prising open their shell and demonstrating swallowing them whole . Under the circumstances I found no difficulty in acquiring the taste instantly. I have to say at that time I was not aware they are considered to have Aphrodisiac properties!
Like so many foods, oysters are an acquired taste. The thought of eating them raw remains deeply repellent to some, though if you enjoy other seafood there should be little difficulty in getting to grips with them. While Jonathan Swift once remarked that “he was a bold man that first ate an oyster”, the slithery beauty of a fresh oyster is a unique taste most definitely worth acquiring! Many discover a lifelong enthusiasm and will choose oysters in preference to any other item on a restaurant menu. I include myself in that category.
Hence, since 1989 when I have been frequently visiting France I have very rarely missed having oysters for Christmas and with a glass of Champagne.
When I drink a glass of champagne I always think of miners trapped underground, when I worked in a Welsh Mining valley I was told on good account that on occasions when miners were trapped a tube was introduced into the cavity where they were stranded and champagne was delivered as those above ground believed it was good nourishment. Interestingly, in April 2007, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published the results of a recent joint study by the University of Reading and University of Cagliari that showed moderate consumptions of Champagne may help the brain cope with the trauma of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Oysters do have health benefits. Don’t worry if you chip some of the shell when preparing the oysters as the shell is a Chinese Herb known Mu Li is also named Concha Ostreae, 牡蛎Concha Ostreae) and is used to treat menopausal symptoms and “calms the spirit”, treating anxiety.
The oysters themselves as well as being rich in protein, they are also low in fat and in calories. They contain significant amounts of zinc, calcium, iron, iodine, copper, magnesium and selenium. Legendary properties have also been attributed: it is believed by some that oysters are the Viagra of the sea. A team of American and Italian researchers analyzed bivalves and found they were rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones. Their high zinc content aids the production of testosterone.
Oysters themselves can and do change gender several times during their lives!