Christmas is almost upon us, and villages and cities across France are preparing for the seasonal Gallic rush on oysters.
The French have a proud history of oyster growing, with cultivation stretching back to ancient Roman times, and world-beating rates of oyster consumption, eating an impressive 4.4 pounds per person per year—more than anywhere else in Europe.
Of those oysters, 50% are eaten in the single week between Christmas and New Year. Vive la France!
The French are justifiably proud of their oysters; they are, after all, considered some of the finest on earth. With a shared language of ‘terroir’ and ‘cru’ and descriptive terms like ‘crisp’, ‘buttery’, or ‘fruity’, the French appreciation of oysters goes hand in hand with their appreciation of wine.
But the French are also far from alone in their love and pride of their home grown oysters, with many other countries across the world vying for the title of the world’s best oyster.
For those of you celebrating the festive season in Europe, here are a selection of the finest oysters available in Europe this Christmas, as well as what to drink with them.
(N.B. There are many other deserving candidates further afield, such as in Australia, New Zealand and America, but as we know, the freshness of an oyster is paramount, so this list will concentrate on the best of European oyster growers.)
The Finest Oysters in Europe
Possibly the most famous oyster of them all are the Speciales Gillardeau, grown by the Gillardeau family near La Rochelle in Western France. Meaty, nutty, firm and savoury, the oysters are grown and carefully tended for four years, and due to their cultivation process are less briny than many other varieties. Known as the ‘Royals Royce’ of oysters, these very fine oysters come at a premium.
FINES DE CLAIRE
This sweet, fruity oyster grows in Marenne-Oleron on the west coast of France, the largest oyster growing region in Europe. The crisp fruitiness of the oyster is derived from the way they are cultivated, with a minimum ‘fattening’ period of two months spent in the nutrient-rich water of salty marsh beds. Prized by the Parisians, this delicate oyster is found in fine restaurants around the world.
For something deliciously salty and fleshy with a fruity aftertaste, try Bouzigues oysters, which are farmed in a saltwater lake called the Etang de Thau. With a salt water content higher than the sea and no tides to contend with, the oysters grow rapidly and are some of the fleshiest in France. There are both flat (native European) and creased (Pacific rock) varieties cultivated in the lake, some have an almost hazelnut aftertaste, while some are reminiscent of watermelon.
Bouzigues may not be able to compete with the above two producers for notoriety, but their name is growing. Besides, oyster preference is an extremely personal thing, and one that does not always correspond with either fame or price tag. Let your tastebuds be your guide!
DELTA DE L’EBRE, CATALONIA
Located between Barcelona and Valencia in the pristine wetlands of the Delta de l’Ebre National Park, these delicious oysters benefit from the salt water of the Mediterranean and the fresh water of the River Ebro. The resulting oysters are silky in texture, with an addictive sweet-salty flavour.
(Don’t tell the French, but nearly 80% of the oysters here are exported to France and many are then sold in France and internationally under a French label. Tut, tut.)
While most French oysters are now Pacific Oysters, the Kelly Galway native oyster is an extremely fine example of the native flat European oyster that used to be prevalent in France, before disease and overconsumption almost entirely wiped them out.
The Kelly Galway is a very large oyster grown in wild oyster fisheries along Ireland’s West Coast, before being moved to oyster beds to fatten and develop their flavour, giving them the flavour of the Atlantic and the fresh waters of the Clarinbridge and Kilcolgan rivers. Due to their unique taste, their longer maturation (up to 6 years), as well as their relative scarcity compared to the Pacific oyster, the native Kelly Galway oysters are prized by connoisseurs and chefs alike.
Julius Caesar claimed that Scotland’s Loch Ryan oysters were ‘the best in the world’, or so the story goes. Whether true or apocryphal, these are some mighty fine oysters, famed for their tangy, lingering flavour.
Like Kelly Galways, Loch Ryans are native oysters of the European variety, and they have been grown by the Wallace family since 1701, when King William II gave the family the rights to harvest the beds.
As the only oyster fishery still operating in Scotland, and a very slow maturation time of up to 8 years, the Loch Ryan oysters are a true delicacy to savour over Christmas and New Year.
What to Drink with Your Oysters
The general rule for oysters is the accompanying beverage must be crisp, and it must be dry. For white wines, they should be young rather than aged as complexity competes with the oyster flavour, and only the very bravest attempt red wine, although some spirits and stouts can be excellent choices.
As mentioned above, there’s a language of ‘terroir’ and ‘crus’ that accompanies oysters, particularly in the French oyster industry, and some of the very best pairings are when an oyster is paired with a local wine, particularly in regions where the soil the vines are grown in was once seabed, and therefore rich in marine sediment.
Here are a few superb pairings for your oyster feast this Christmas:
Champagne and Sparkling Wine: Sparkles and Salt are a Match Made in Heaven.
The crisp, acidic flavour of dry sparkling wines- whether prosecco, cava, or any other iteration, work splendidly with oysters, cutting through the creaminess of the meat and singing with the salinity.
However, the reigning champion must always be true Champagne from the Champagne region, partly because it is grown in soil which is rich in marine sediments and chalky notes, creating a magnificent mineral, almost saline partnership with the salty oysters.
Go for a Brut (dry), bright, citrusy, non-vintage champagne. This is an occasion where you don’t need to fork out hundreds for a bottle of Cristal- and in fact shouldn’t, as the complexity of a vintage champagne will only compete and clash with the oyster’s flavour profile.
A Brut Blanc de Blanc (100% chardonnay) is a very good choice, such as either Pierre Gimonnet Premier Cru Brut NV, or Chapuy Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagne.
Outside the Champagne region, a bottle of Cremant de Limoux will go down very nicely.
White Wine: Chablis and Sancerre, if you please.
The best white wine pairings for oysters are cool-climate, high-acidity wines grown in mineral-rich soils. Make it a young wine, as you’ll again run into the pesky complexity clash with older vintages, and don’t overchill, or you’ll ruin the flavour.
Chablis is one of the finest choices, as its chardonnay grapes are grown in soil that was once the ocean floor, lending it a flinty, racy, palate cleansing acidity which complements the oysters of that region supremely. A bottle of Domaine Servin Chablis Premiere Cuvee les Pargues could be just the drop.
Sancerre is another excellent pairing. Coming from the Loire Valley, this cool climate wine is grown on an ancient sea bed known as the Paris basin, and its bracing acidity, citrus notes, and mineral profile matches exceedingly well with oysters. The Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre does nicely here.
For other strong white wine accompaniments, a very dry Muscadet from the Loire Valley promises a clean and crisp flavour profile, while a dry German Riesling is outstanding with meatier, creamier oysters. You can very rarely go wrong with a Pouilly Fuisse when eating oysters, or a pale, crisp Provencal rose could also be considered.
Sherry: dry, dry sherry.
Not sickly sweet stuff, but the desperately dry Manzanilla, which delivers acidity, crispness and salinity in droves.
Spirits: Gin Martini, up with a twist.
Its lovely cucumber notes make Hendricks Gin a standout for oyster accompaniments, but any good gin will do. Whether you’re fancying a gin and tonic, or a shaken martini, the marriage between gin and oysters is a thing of beauty.
Bartenders are getting creative with their martini and oyster collaborations; some now make martinis with an actual oyster thrown in there to take place of the vermouth, while others pop the oyster’s own salty, delicious juice in there to take the traditional olive’s ‘dirty’ role.
Beer: Guinness is Good for…Eating Oysters
Some say a crisp, dry pilsner is just the ticket, but the Irish beg to differ. They’ve drunk malty, creamy stout with their oysters for generations, and it works surprisingly well with the salty hit of the oysters. The famous advertising slogan for Guinness ‘Guinness is good for you’ rings true in this case, but Murphy’s or your preferred Irish Stout will be just as good.
So now that you know which oysters you want, and which drink to pair them with, it’s time to join the oyster rush in time for Christmas. Expect some competition, as for the French, getting the best oysters is somewhat of a national sport. Sharpen your elbows, grab your shucker, and join the fray!
Merry oyster season!