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24 Dec 2008

Oysters at Christmas

You might find the occasional turkey on sale at Christmas in France, but the real festive requirement is for oysters. So great - and temporary - is the demand that most of the supermarkets put up marquees in their car parks in the last two or three days before Christmas, solely to sell oysters. This year, 2008, baskets of two dozen no.3 oysters are typically selling for 12 euros, and people are buying several baskets each. In London they were available at a pound an oyster. Typically, the French eat over 120,000 tonnes of oysters every year.

Here in Normandy there are quite a few oyster farms along the coasts, and especially around the Baie de Mont St Michel, including into the Breton side. For example, Cancale in Brittany is famous for the quality of its oysters, and there are stalls on the harbour and beach selling all the different varieties – Numbers 1 to 3, creuses, and others, to very, very discerning customers. At about noon every Sunday, there are many gentlemen arriving fresh from Mass, to buy the oysters for Sunday lunch. Many of them have their own oyster knives, and will try a number 3 here, a rare variety there, often ending up buying their four dozen or whatever from a favourite producer.

I can't say that I really share the enthusiasm. There is something about eating food that is not only raw, but alive, that causes me a little difficulty from the aesthetic point of view. I enjoy them cooked – there is one local restaurant that does them with cider and Camembert, grilled for a minute or so, which are pretty special, but just occasionally I will choose raw ones.

A couple of years ago we had to call round to see a local farmer, Georges, about an issue with our fields that he was using, on Christmas eve. He and his wife invited us to lunch on Christmas day (the real big family meal is dinner on Christmas eve), and insisted we come. When we got there, there were 19 other people for lunch, so it was no surprise that he had meant it when he had said that two more would be no problem. People locally prefer benches to individual chairs, because you can always find space for one or two more on benches.

Georges was standing at the sink, with a huge platter on the draining board, a little knife in his hand, methodically opening oysters from several baskets, and placing them on the platter. I think that was his only contribution to meals, other than making cider, calvados apple brandy, and pommeau (cider, sugar, calvados, seriously lethal), and preparing the shallot vinegar for the oysters.

In the event, I suppose I ate more than half a dozen of the oysters, spooning on a little shallot vinegar to ensure they winced and were alive, washed down with very dry cider. After the oysters, fish poached in wine and cream, then three of four chickens that had been running around the yard the previous day, then cheese and salad, then traditional apple tart. Excellent all round, and near enough to our house for me to walk home the long way, from one side of the road to the other and back again, the entire kilometre..

But not a sign of a turkey, there or anywhere else, any year. Anyway, best wishes for Christmas, and a prosperous 2009. Bonne annee.

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