I am however, always interested in oysters – in their place in the hierarchy of food for humans, and in the ways that fisherfolk and celebrity chefs actually deal with them.
Cookbooks on specific foods did not really start being published in any significant volume until the second half of the nineteenth century. Today I want to give you a few short notes from Oysters à la Mode: The oyster and over 100 ways of cooking it (London, 1888), by Harriet De Salis.
Mrs.De Salis (as she is named in the front matter of the book) happens to answer a few questions I have had about oysters, but was afraid to ask.
What chronological age of oyster is best to eat?
“Real lovers of oysters maintain that no oyster is worth eating until it is quite two years old. Their age is known by the shell, just the same as the age of a tree is known by its bark, or a fish by its scale, and the smaller the oyster the finer the flavour.”
What is the ideal serving size?
“In former days a dinner of any pretension always began with oysters, and many of the guests never stopped until they had swallowed a gross, i.e 144 oysters. The ‘Almanach de Gourmands’(1803) states that beyond five or six dozen, as a mere indispensable prelude to a winter déjeuner, it is proved that oyster eating most certainly ceases to be an enjoyment.’”
What is the best way to open and eat an oyster?
The author gives two methods here. The first is the traditional way with a blade, and the technique is described in detail. Speed is of the essence, and once opened it is vital to ‘lift quickly to the lips, and eat it before the delicate aroma has dissipated into the atmosphere. There is as much difference between an oyster thus opened and eaten, as between champagne frothing and leaping out of the silver-necked bottle, and the same wine after it has been allowed to stand six hours with the cork removed.
The second method is most interesting. I have not heard of it previously, have you?
“There is another method of eating oysters, wherein no knife is required, and not the least skill in opening is needed, the only requisite being a bright fire. You pick out a glowing spot in the fire, where there are no flames and no black pieces of coal to dart jets of smoke exactly in the place where they are not wanted. You then insert a row of oysters into the glowing coals, taking care to keep their mouths outward and within an easy grasp of the tongs, and their convexity downwards. Presently a spitting and hissing noise is heard, which gradually increases till the shells begin to open and the juice is seen boiling merrily within, the mollusk itself becoming whiter and more opaque as the operation continues. There is no rule for ascertaining the precise point at which the cooking is completed, for every one has his own taste, and must learn by personal experience. A little practice soon makes perfect, and the expert operator will be able to keep up a continual supply as fast as he can manage to eat them. When they are thoroughly cooked they should be taken from the fire, a second batchinserted, and the still hissing and spluttering mollusks be eaten "scorching hot." No one whohas not eaten oysters dressed in this primitive mode has the least idea of the piquant flavour of which they are capable. Stewed in their own juice, the action of fire only brings out the full flavour, and as
the juice is consumed as well as the oyster, there is no waste and no dissipation of the indescribable
but potent aroma.”
The recipe for the day is, of course, from the book. A nice breakfast dish to break the monotony of bacon and eggs, or bran and low-fat yoghurt, or whatever is your regular start to the day.
Oysters and Bacon (a breakfast dish)
Huitres au Lard.
Fry up some mashed potatoes in bacon fat, and break them in pieces with a fork, and let them brown a little more ; cut some thin rashers of bacon and arrange round the potatoes, which should be piled
up in the middle of the dish. Broil some oysters in their shells with butter and cayenne, turn them
out of their shells and place on the top of the potatoes; garnish with lemon sippets. Ham may be
used instead of bacon.
Quotation for the Day.
The most virtuous thing in nature, according to this new theory, should be the oyster. He is always at home, and always sober. He is not noisy. He gives no trouble to the police. I cannot think of a single one of the Ten Commandments that he ever breaks. He never enjoys himself, and he never, so long as he lives, gives a moments pleasure to any living thing.
Jerome K. Jerome, ‘The Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow’.