Food: Shuck it and see

Simon Hopkinson It's the perfect time for oysters, and their ideal partner is a crisp sausage. Honest. Photograph by Jason Lowe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If there is a time when both mussels and oysters are at their peak, this is about it. It certainly is mid-season for our dear natives, which, as far as I am concerned, remain the finest in the world - including Irish ones as a semi-native, if that's all right. And it would be quite wrong not to include the marginally less luxurious rock oyster (different in both taste and texture, and most definitely in price), as this must surely be its best moment too. I have enjoyed these in the summer months, but, quite honestly, some of them become a bit creamy for my taste. As with many foods that are no longer restricted by season and weather (salmon, scallops - though the fishing of these should be curbed forthwith or there won't be any left - and, frankly, tasteless reared venison), the rock oyster is now harvested all year round. Thankfully, the fastidious Ostrea edulis won't play this game.

The same fate has befallen the mussel. At one time, you would only ever see them for sale in winter, stacked high on market stalls or towards the rear of a good fishmonger's slab. They might have been a bugger to clean - all those barnacles and straggly beards - but they tasted better. They were big and black; their insides, once cooked, were plump and a rich orange. Of a large pot I cooked the other week, half were pale at best and many had a weak albino look. They tasted OK, but were not the deeply flavoured and creamy textured mussel of old, I'm sure. It seems the price of constant availability is a fall in quality. Or am I being fussy?

Now I just need to say here that there is only one way to eat a native oyster: raw, freshly opened, not turned over in its shell under any circumstances, judiciously squeezed with a little lemon juice or a drop of Tabasco if you like. Or both. I also favour the French dressing made from finely chopped shallots steeped in vinegar - I prefer red wine vinegar, which may be the opposite of what you'd expect to suit an oyster. Whatever, I wouldn't dream of eating a native oyster in any other fashion - except, that is, with sausages.

This is a speciality of Bordeaux. The oysters hail from nearby Arcachon, and are really delicious. The more well-known native oyster of France is the Belon, which is grown in the Belon river estuaries in Brittany. Some say these are superior to our natives. Pish! I say. Zut alors! I often enjoy a few Belons whenever I am in Paris, simply because they are there. But better? Hmmmm. Anyway, to return to those sossies.

This dish - I won't give the full recipe because there's really nothing to it - is astonishingly good. Mind you, now I think about it, one of my favourite dishes on the menu at Poons Chinese restaurant (just off Leicester Square in London's West End), is a viscously delicious hotpot of braised belly pork and oysters. So there it is. But the real delight of sausages and oysters lies in the thrill of temperature and texture. Just as you have slurped an ice-cold oyster, massaged it with your tongue for a moment, bitten and swallowed it, you must swiftly follow this oral treat with a bite of very hot, very crisp sausage. Sensational! To quote from the inimitable words of Edouard de Pomiane (from his unique oeuvre Cooking in Ten Minutes, Serif pounds 5.99): "Alternate the sensations. Burn your mouth with a crackling sausage. Soothe your burns with a cool oyster. Continue until all the sausages and oysters have disappeared. White wine, of course." Brilliant.

You may, of course, use rock oysters for this, but I must say that the natives worked a treat. Use rocks for a cooked oyster dish, such as this very simple one with leeks and curry. The flavours marry particularly well as, indeed, they do when prepared with mussels. This is known as a mouclade, where the mussels are prepared in a similar way to a la mariniere, the sauce flavoured with curry and enriched with cream. An egg yolk is also sometimes beaten in along with the cream to liaise and thicken the liquid.

Hot oysters with leeks and curry spices, serves 2

12 large rock oysters

1 large leek, white part only, sliced thinly, washed, drained and dried

50g unsalted butter

1 tsp curry powder

very little salt

1 tbsp dry sherry

150ml double cream

1 small egg yolk

squeeze of lemon juice

Shuck the oysters or have them shucked. Any juices must be saved as they are opened, so this should be done over a small bowl. Extract each oyster from its bottom shell with a small, sharp knife and allow to slide into the bowl, juices and all. Once this is done, scrub the oyster shells all over with a brush and warm water, then dry under a hot grill - leave this lit, as you will need it later. Also, heat the oven to very low. Now lift each oyster from its juices, dip quickly in a bowl of water (to rinse off any clinging particles of shell) and put in a small pan. Strain the juices over them using a fine sieve or muslin. Put on one side.

In another pan, stew the leeks in the butter until very soft. Add the curry powder and a mere sprinkle of salt. Allow to stew for a minute or two then add the sherry. Turn the heat up and cook for about one minute, bubbling. Suspend another sieve over the oyster pan and drain the leeks into this, pressing down lightly with the back of a spoon so the juices drip out. Arrange the oyster shells - as horizontally as possible - into an oven-proof serving dish which has been thickly spread with rock salt, and deposit a teaspoon or so of the leeks into the bottom of each shell.

Heat the oysters ever so gently over a low flame until they have stiffened slightly - about 2 minutes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and lay each one atop the leeks. Cover with foil and keep warm in the oven leaving the door ajar. Now bring the juices to the boil and rapidly reduce by two-thirds. Add the cream and bring back to a simmer, whisking throughout. As the sauce begins to thicken, remove from the heat and immediately whisk in the egg yolk until the sauce is somewhat frothy and noticeably enriched. Add a squeeze of lemon juice. Whip the oysters out of the oven and spoon the sauce carefully over each one; it matters not a jot if some of the sauce dribbles over the edges. Place under a hot grill for about a minute, or until the surfaces are lightly burnished and a little puffed around the edges. Serve at once, directly from the dish.

Deep-fried mussels with fennel cream, serves 2, generously

In early December, and for the third time now, I spent some quality time at Grayshott Hall (Health and Fitness Retreat, as they refer to it, which, I must say, sounds a lot more friendly than somewhere muddy with animals), on the borders of Surrey and Hampshire. I suffered daily morning massage, steam cabinets, reflexology (bliss) and a facial. I walked in the adjacent woods, became terrifyingly lost and emerged, in the dark, somewhere near Dorking ... all right, not far from Grayshott actually. I'm not very good in the dark, in woods, and when it is very cold indeed. It wasn't all rest; I had recipes to write. One day, I drove into Guildford and bought a small deep-fryer. Well, you do, don't you? You think of chips. This recipe will please people who delight in all manner of crusted items retrieved from the depths of a bath of hot oil, all rustling and golden.

Deep-frying a mussel may sound like an awful fiddle - which it may be to those who find the removal of film from a tray of ready-cooked chicken tikka masala hard work. But then this is for those who enjoy cooking, such as myself, oh, and who have also been on a shopping trip as essential as my Guildford excursion. My particular toy is made by Magimix, and very smart it is too, all shiny and new. Now then, where are those potatoes ... I mean, mussels!

50g butter

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 glass of dry white wine

2 tbsp Pernod

not less than 2 dozen large mussels (Spanish are perfect), cleaned

2 bulbs of Florence fennel, trimmed and coarsely chopped

1 small potato, peeled and chopped

75ml double cream

squeeze of lemon juice

good pinch of cayenne pepper

flour

2 small eggs, beaten

a large cup of fresh breadcrumbs

segments of lemon for serving

Melt the butter in a large pot and add the onion and garlic. Stew gently until pale golden. Add the wine and Pernod and bring to a rapid boil. Tip in the mussels, put on a lid and cook for several minutes, shaking them about occasionally. Suspend a colander over another pan in the sink, and, once you are confident that all the mussels have opened (discard any that have not), tip them into the colander and leave to drain for a few minutes. Shake off any clinging bits of vegetable from the shells, remove each mussel (discard the shells) and put onto a plate. Scrape any bits of vegetable from the colander back into the juices beneath, and set back on the stove. Add the fennel and potato to this liquid and simmer slowly, covered, until both are very tender (add a little water from time to time if the mixture looks dry).

While this is cooking, roll the mussels through the flour, then dip each one in egg and finally coat with breadcrumbs. Put aside on a plate covered with a sheet of kitchen paper. Have some nut oil in the deep-fryer, chip pan or plain old saucepan, heated to about 190C/375F.

Once the fennel mixture is almost a mulch, add the cream, lemon juice and cayenne. Cook together for a couple more minutes and then tip the whole lot into a food processor. Process until very smooth and then push through a sieve into a small hot bowl. Check for seasoning, cover with foil and keep warm over a small pan of barely simmering water.

Deep fry the mussels for a couple of minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Serve in a hot dish lined with kitchen paper, with lemon pieces and the fennel cream for dipping into

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