by R J Furth
When I began to formulate this essay – after two gluttonous days in Brittany – I had visions of a title that read 60 Oysters. As you can infer from the actual title, I failed to achieve my goal. Part of my failure, if it can called that, can be attributed to thoughtless enthusiasm. I’d rather think that the real reason why I ate 42 oysters rather than 60 is that I eventually realized it was a silly goal. I love oysters, and Brittany is rightly famous for its oysters; however, there is so much excellent food there that it would have been a shame to focus solely on oysters. It would be as if I had set a goal to reach a the top of a magnificent mountain by noon, then raced to the top in such haste that I failed to stop and marvel at the field of wild flowers, missed watching the wild goats leaping from crag to crag, completely ignored the awesome views that were revealed at different points of the trek. Half way through my voyage up Oyster Mountain I decided to stop and appreciate the many pleasures that were offered. But first, the oysters.
Brittany is known for having some of the finest food in a country that is famous for food. At the top of the food list is oysters, and the #1 place for oysters is Cancale. Louis XIV had oysters delivered daily from Cancale to Versailles. Napoleon supposedly brought along Cancale oysters during his failed invasion of Russia. I know that oysters are raised along much of Brittany’s coast, yet every restaurant that I visited advertised oysters from Cancale. (Admittedly, I didn’t travel far from St. Malo, which is close to Cancale.) I happen to love oysters. I know many people find them revolting in their salty sliminess, yet I loved oysters from my first bite many years ago. Oysters are not the kind of food that you grow to love. Much like the odiferous durian fruit from Southeast Asia, you either love it or hate it. You either savor each bite, slowly swallow, and eagerly anticipate the next, or you spit it out and pop in a mint. I’m a swallower.
Having done extensive research prior to traveling to Brittany (see my travel essay The Joys of Preplanning) I was psyched to eat as many oysters as I could manage during the week. (By the way, one Globereader asked if I had eaten 42 oysters in one sitting. She said she too loved oysters, yet doubted she could eat so many at one time. Although I suppose I could eat four or five dozen oysters at a time, it would be foolish and a waste. I like the concept of many small portions, as the Japanese serve food in yakitorias. The first few bites of any dish give the greatest pleasure. After a while it is simply work, as when one tries to eat a 32 ounce steak. What’s the point?) The first night I went to a small family owned restaurant within the walled city of St Malo. The restaurant, opened in 1932, was justly proud of its seafood. Although I had planned on starting with a dozen oysters, I decided to splurge for my first meal in Brittany and ordered the fruits de mer, fruits of the sea. Wow! The platter that was soon placed in front of me contained the freshest, and tastiest, seafood I have ever eaten: six oysters; six steamed mussels; a mound of sweet, chewy bulot (sea snails); four langoustines served with mayonnaise; six prawns and a huge crab. Washed down with a chilled half bottle bottle (I wanted to be able to walk upright back to the hotel) of Muscadet, it was one of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten. With that out of the way, I could now focus on oysters.
I had half a dozen the next night, followed by one of the tastiest confit de canard that I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. For those not familiar with this classic French dish, I must first caution you that it tastes far better than it sounds. The duck leg is heavily salted then slowly cooked until it is immersed in the abundant fat the encases a great duck. The duck leg is then stored in its fat for up to six months before it is cooked for the final time. Yes, it can be salty and a bit greasy, but in a delicious way. Unless it is overcooked the final time – which happens too often – confit de canard is moist, flavorful and the meat falls off the bones in tender morsels. The version I ate in St. Malo was made in the restaurant by the owner and served with pan-roasted herbed potatoes, a sweet potato mash and julienned vegetables. It was an exquisite meal.
Over the next two days I had another dozen oysters. Although I tried different sizes, they were all equally good. Of course, nobody can live solely on oysters so I ordered a dozen escargot one evening. As is true for oysters, not everyone relishes the idea of eating snails. Since my father introduced me to escargot in my early teens I have had a fondness for the little critters though, to be honest, my love of escargot probably has little to do with their flavor. I’ve never eaten a plain snail. What most people enjoy about escargot is the classic preparation: bake them in oil, butter, and a mound of garlic and herbs. Once the dozen snails have been eaten, the diner usually uses half a loaf of bread to soak up the flavorful sauce. The dozen I ate in Dinan, a small medieval town downriver from St. Malo, were cooked in the usual manner. However, there was one significant difference. Whereas most escargot that you eat are rather chewy, somewhat like day-old bubble gum, these were tender as butter. When I asked the waiter where they were from, he informed me that they were raised less than ten miles away. It was evident that Brittany’s fame for fresh ingredients was not restricted to seafood.
With 36 oysters consumed, it was time to head to the Mecca of oysters, Cancale. I arrived by bus from St. Malo and was immediately aware that Cancale offered the best and worst to a traveler. Cancale is a decent sized town, not that different from most French towns, but the waterfront is devoted solely to tourism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except when a place loses it’s original appeal. Every shop was devoted to tourism: large restaurants with menus in three languages (French, English, German), shops selling ‘fishermen’ clothing, shops selling cheap souvenirs, shops selling imported sweets. Buses lined the street and tourists jammed the sidewalks. Yet when I walked through the mob and finally reached the promenade, I was rewarded with a breathtaking view. The tide (supposedly one of the most powerful in the world) was out, revealing acres of oyster beds. Oyster farmers lease sections of the shore and maintained these beds as their ancestors have for centuries. Every day they harvest the oysters that are ready and do one of three things: sell them wholesale, serve them in their own restaurants on the main street, or sell them in stalls that overlook the oyster beds. It was to this small cluster of stalls that I headed. This is also where my quest for oysters ended.
There they were, piles of the freshest oysters possible, oysters that had been harvested just hours earlier. I picked a stall at random and ordered half a dozen of the largest ones. The young woman grabbed a plastic plate, put six oysters on it and partially opened each. I handed her the money and she handed me the plate with a butter knife. I walked to the edge of the stalls and, facing the oyster beds from which they had been harvested, I attacked the oysters. The woman had left the top shell attached so, standing there wearing my backpack, I held the plate in one hand while using the other to open the oyster. (Years of eating with my right hand in Muslim countries came in handy, so to speak.) I beheld a huge oyster sitting in a pool of sea water. Here is where I made a major error. I know that some of you will be shaking your heads at what I did next. I recently related this to a friend and she looked at me like I was an idiot. In my defense, I was caught up in the moment, intoxicated by the thought of eating the freshest of oysters. I used the butter knife to loosen the oyster, then swallowed it, sea water and all. Why would I swallow sea water, you might ask? At the time I thought it would be like eating fruit that had ripened in its own juices, or eating a rare steak au jus. I thought the sea water would enhance the natural flavors of the ocean that make oysters so special. I devoured the other five oysters in the same fashion, though I began to spill off the sea water, only leaving a little behind to add moisture. Although I quickly began to sense I was doing something wrong, I couldn’t stop my own feeding frenzy.
I left the stall with a wide grin on my face. I had just eaten half a dozen oysters at the home of oysters, sort of like eating communion wafers at the Vatican. Except I don’t think communion wafers upset your stomach. (Hey, I was raised Jewish, so what do I know about communion wafers.) Half a block from the stall I began to feel seasick. My stomach sloshed as I walked. I imagined that my face was turning green. To make matters worse, all the hotels were fully booked. An hour and a half later I finally found an available room and was able to lay down until the queasiness passed. That night I had a delightful meal in one of the smaller seaside restaurants. I began with moules et frites, mussels and fries. They were superb. The mussels, also from within ten miles of Cancale, were tender and tasty in a delicate herb broth. The fries were hot, crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. For the main course I had a superb ray in butter with capers accompanied by a crisp Sancerre. Although I didn’t have any oysters for dinner in Cancale, it was a terrific meal. If I return to Cancale I will eat at least two dozen oysters, though I will return the sea water to from where it came.