My sons ate their first snails in a Parisian bistro on a wet night in October. Seated in a crowded back room buzzing with bonhomie, they perused the menu in search of adventure. Snails!! The Amazonian Maitresse glanced up briefly from her notepad when two small boys announced in English accents that they would have the escargots. The gallic shrug that followed translated as ‘whatever’. They waited impatiently, brandishing their tongs venomously like little Horrid Henrys. The sizzling molluscs before them, they set to work with diligence, each snail extracted with surgical precision. Then laying down their implements they resorted to licking out the shells and ruining their Breton shirts with drizzlings of garlic butter. ‘Rubbery’, ‘garlicky’ they concluded before asking to try the frogs’ legs. Sadly the budget did not stretch as far as their imaginations. Anyone for puppy dogs tails?
Having acquired a taste for molluscs, my youngest was determined to attempt the sea snail. The following year, on a summer sojourn on the Ile-de-Re, we took to frequenting a beach shack that serves up platters of oysters which sit alongside the tables submerged in their cleaning tanks. Other fresh seafood is also on offer and my son was soon face to face with his first plate of bulots. What it lacked in garlic butter it made up for in fresh mayonnaise and the sea snail won the Best Taste award ahead of its landlubbing cousin.
The eldest, not to be outdone by his sibling’s precocious palate, ventured onto the hallowed ground of the oyster. Approaching his first conquest with caution, he ordered a plate of huitres farcies. His parents watched as anxiously as when he was a 4 month old tasting his first carrot puree. Would he spit it out or reach hungrily for the spoon with MORE written all over his face. The oysters got the nod and he was ready to up his game – a fresh oyster. I nervously waited to find out whether my son would prove to be a chip off the old block or genetically modified. I held my breath while he prepared the oyster for its final journey. Then it disappeared, he swished it round in his mouth, savouring for the first time the addictive iodine hit, and swallowed. Flash photography was used while he gave the thumbs up. He warmed the cockles of his mother’s heart – bivalve meets heart valve.
You see oysters are an addiction in our household. The first item packed for the holidays is the oyster knife. We feast, no, gorge on oysters throughout the summer. I shuck countless dozens, my wrist more exercised than an adolescent boys’. We buy our huitres from a nondescript and nameless place in the harbour which opens at 5pm for a few hours. At the appointed time, a silver haired woman in her 70s, elegant and charmant, cycles up to a rollup metal grating which she opens and allows us in to oyster heaven. For before us sit baskets of oysters, each grouping a different size ranging from large to enormous. They are grown on the island and differ not only in their girth but in their method of filtration.HNnnN The madame waits attentively while we debate our choice and decide how many we will eat for dinner. She packs them lovingly for the short walk home and we pay a pittance for nature’s finest creation. En route to the chez nous restaurant we stop in at the boulangerie for a bread called Le Seigle Citron, a mix of 2 local flours with the addition of lemon zest, For as the Walrus said to the Carpenter ‘a loaf of bread is chiefly what we need’. Yes Lewis Carroll knew a thing or two about the delights of the oyster. Odd that he didn’t mention a chilled Muscadet.
ALL PICTURES TAKEN BY MADELEINE MORROW
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