Food: Gut reaction

The irresistible appeal of the oyster

The very first time I ate a healthy serving of oysters - and that is no less than a dozen - was around the beginning of the 1970s. It was dinner in a restaurant where I used to work and made a change from having to nick the odd one from time to time when chef wasn't watching. The same went for the odd slice of black truffle, which I then thought was a dull thing tasting of nothing more than a wafer-thin cut off a Michelin ZX. But the oysters, I had to confirm to myself, were worth the mystique.

The bi-valves in question were 12 of the very best, fattest and briniest Helfords, all the way from Cornwall. After about the third one, I just knew I was hooked. They slipped down progressively faster as I forked and scurried around the platter, slurped their juices, added shallot vinegar and dripped them with the odd tentative shake from the Tabasco bottle. The dinner was everything I had hoped it would be, and it felt good to eat the oysters without looking shifty. Around six o'clock the following morning, however, I wished to God I had never set foot in the place.

When feeling ill after eating oysters, most people admit to preference for death, the violence of the reaction being such. I had never felt anywhere near as bad as this and, as you can imagine, put it down to the oysters. Never again, I said to myself. Oh, but I did enjoy them so!

Three years on, Boxing day, Pembrokeshire. Lunch at Warpool Court Hotel in St David's. Pembrokeshire Oysters, from Carew, were one of the first courses on the festive menu. These were a much smaller oyster than the hefty Helfords I remembered, but charming and sweet as a mermaid's kiss. Did I dare try again? It had been three years after all... This time they reappeared around the cocktail hour.

This just wasn't fair. Here was this blossoming gastronome, ripe for all the tastes and textures of a life with food and yet could not stomach one of that life's most exciting gifts. I was distraught. Would I ever be able to cope with the things? Had I just been dreadfully unlucky and stumbled across two batches which were suspect? Or was I one of those who just cannot eat them? Mussels seemed to slip down easily enough. Vinegared cockles I had eaten from little cartons with a wooden fork, on the front of Blackpool, and those little clams called palourdes, grilled with garlic and breadcrumbs in Brittany, had been eaten with gusto and pleasure, as a greedy teenager, in embarrassingly large amounts. So why not oysters?

Another three years on, Isle of Wight, as an Egon Ronay inspector. Lovely pub near the sea and last meal of the week - always a relief, it being the 10th one. Local native oysters was the debatable tortologous blackboard description, and as far as I remember, they were being sold for a song. "A dozen of your finest natives, landlord!" I shouted. Of course, I didn't really. What I actually said, almost whispering, slightly trembling, was "Um... do you think I might order a dozen oysters please?"

"Of course you may, my good man!" he boomed back. Moreover, he went on to say: "Actually, do you think you can possibly manage to scoff 16 of the little blighters for the same price? You see that's all we have left!" "Of course!" I gulped. "No problem," I added with a whimper. Oh bugger.

You see my thoughts had been along the lines of third time lucky, one more go; will I be safely home by 7pm? or will I have to pull into Fleet services on the M3? I need not have worried. Firstly, the oysters were some of the best I ever remember eating, the pub collected a rave review and I arrived home relieved and feeling top- hole. The native ostrea edulis and its many relations have never - touch wood - bothered me since.

For many people, sadly, this affliction never rights itself, with all manner of bi-valves causing the victims to be violently ill, however rigorous the cleansing of them may be - and believe me, it is now as rigorous a process as it can possibly be. Bad ones undoubtedly slip through, but in experienced hands they are quickly noticed. I have sometimes wondered whether a health warning should be attached to menus: "Oysters eaten at your own risk!" However, I don't expect sales would exactly rocket.

The native British oyster is undoubtedly the finest in the world. No argument about that. Its multi-layered flavours are the most complex known to the palate: at once sweet and salty, ferrous and fishy, together with a texture, when raw, that is unlike any other food we put in our mouths. One of its cousins, the rock oyster, is so far away in comparison that it might be better to compare it to a mussel. This is an exaggeration, but not a big one - and don't let me mislead you, because I have eaten some decent rocks; this is purely a matter of comparison. The deciding factor, finally, is cost, with a native coming in at over double the price of a rock oyster. And if there is one rule of thumb when it comes to what to do with either, and if you like oysters cooked, then choose a rock for eating hot. To cook a perfect native would be a sacrilege.

Two simple little recipes therefore, for cooking rock oysters. Unless you are adept at opening oysters, ask your fishmonger to do it for you, but ask him to try and catch as much of the juice as possible.

Oysters with garlic butter baked in baguettes, serves 4

This is good for a feast around the kitchen table with a few bottles of Muscadet or Sancerre, rather than being part of a meal.

1 long baguette

24 large rock oysters, opened

lemon quarters

For the garlic butter:

225g/8oz butter, softened to room temperature

3 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste with a little salt

handful of parsley leaves, finely chopped

generous shake of Tabasco

salt and pepper to taste

1 dsp Pernod

Cut the baguette into 4 equal lengths, slicing off the very end knobs of the baguette. Cut each length in half lengthways. Scrape out a little of the soft insides with a spoon, make into breadcrumbs in a coffee grinder and lay onto a tray to dry out.

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6

Lift the oysters out of their bottom shells and tip into a bowl together with any juices. One by one, lift them out and gently rinse under a cold tap (this ensures removal of any stray bits of shell). Put the oysters into a clean container and strain over the juices through a fine sieve. Whisk together the ingredients for the butter.

Into each of the 8 baguette "boats", spread a little of the garlic butter - a smear, no more. Then cover with three oysters. Spoon a tiny amount of their liquor over each and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs. Dot each oyster with a scant teaspoon of the garlic butter and place on a baking tray that has been strewn with rock salt (this helps to prevent the bread from falling on its side).

Bake in the top of the oven for 10-15 minutes or until the edge of the baguettes are golden brown, the butter melted and the oysters plumped up and breadcrumbs gilded. Serve with a little lemon squeezed over the oysters.

Deep fried oysters and onion rings, serves 4

24 large rock oysters, opened

2 medium-sized onions, peeled and sliced into rings

2 tbsp flour

2 small eggs, beaten

75g/3oz fresh white breadcrumbs

Lift the oysters out of their bottom shells and tip into a small pan together with any juices. Heat very gently, swirling the pan around, until the oysters just start to take on a plumped look. Drain immediately and lay on kitchen paper to dry and cool quickly.

Begin to heat the oil in a deep fryer or chip basket to 350F/180F. Meanwhile, season the oysters with a pinch of cayenne, roll them in flour, then into egg and finally through the breadcrumbs. Try and be as deft as you can with this process: the less claggy the coating of the oysters, the finer will be the result. Do exactly the same to the onions rings.

Fry the onion rings first, until crisp and golden, then lay onto kitchen paper and keep warm in a low oven with the door ajar. Once the onions are cooked, do the same with the oysters. For both items, cooking time will be 1-2 minutes. Note: do not over-crowd the fryer or pan, and also make sure that you bring the temperature back up before cooking the next batch of ingredients. These are particularly good served with:

Vietnamese dipping sauce

leaves from a small bunch of coriander

12-15 mint leaves

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

3 small green chillies, seeded and chopped

2 tsp sugar

juice of 3 limes

5 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

5 tbsp water

To make this dipping sauce, work all the ingredients together in a food processor until well amalgamated but not a completely pureed.

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