I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most adventurous person when it comes to food. Despite the Asian/Indian influences from The Mothership’s side of the family, I don’t grate red chilies over every meal, I don’t often try new things, and I tend to order the same reliable, tried-and-tested curry whenever I eat at an Indian restaurant. When it comes to meat, I come from a society where you buy your chicken fillets, pork chops or ground lamb mince all nicely packaged, plastic wrapped and neutrally presented, with no hint of the living, breathing animal the food came from.
We’ve been too spoiled by convenience: we no longer live in the days when meat was a luxury and if you wanted it you’d have to raise it yourself for 11 months of the year, fattening it up and caring for its well-being, until the dark , messy day that you and your family, perhaps even the community, would come together to benefit from your large investment. We tend to avoid foods that hold any clue to the creature that they came from; the United Kingdom slowly saw the demise of offal appearing on the dinner table, forgetting the days when penny-cautious housewives would find a way to cook and serve the parts of cattle that normally get scrapped; we now hurry past the fish counter with its endless trays of cold, accusing eyes. Which is why I have a problem with shellfish as not all of the seafood range is sold as visually neutralised as its meaty relatives.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the safe seafood options: battered fish (usually cod, haddock or any other available white fleshed fish) and chips, prawn cocktail (American: shrimp), fish finger sandwiches (American: fish sticks), fish pie, and tuna & cucumber sandwiches, amongst other things, but when faced with the other side of seafood, and by that I mean the more defensively structured options, I have that no doubt very human reaction when faced with something possessing more limbs than me, long antenna, a bristly, armoured exterior or claws.
Seafood is delicious, and back when I lived in London I absolutely loved joining in the annual Lobster Festival at Big Easy, my restaurant of choice, however I knew that this was the cowards way out: a dish of cooked and prepared lobster and accompanying sides placed in front of me, along with the various accoutrements needed to crack shell and extract the meat, but all without my having to engage in a death match with a crustacean fighting for its life, or having to cook something that would leave the lingering aroma of fish in the house for a week.
I can handle shell-on cooked prawns, fried with garlic, chili, spring onion and ginger in a wok until crispy, eaten with much gusto and with the crunchy tail being a particular favourite, however I would never have the courage to pop a whole one in my mouth with head and all, choosing to either to remove that part of the prawn before I cooked it or shortly before eating.
My friends and I used to be in the habit of getting dressed up and attending the Henley Regatta held in Henley-on-Thames, a very picturesque and historical town in the UK, and the Regatta is one of those events where your lack of breeding, inability to play polo, habit of eating your dinner with the (*gasp* shock horror) wrong fork or fact that Daddy never brought you a pony becomes painfully apparent, and one year while at the Regatta the group of us decided, after consuming large amounts of Pimms, to treat ourselves to a dish of oysters at the Loch Fyne seafood restaurant in Henley-on-Thames.
I’d always wanted to try oysters, but had lacked the occasion to do so – it’s not something you tend to order as a light snack or go for instead of a burger – therefore this was the perfect opportunity for me to share a new experience in the safe sanctuary provided by my friends, accompanied by other oyster virgins. The evening was warm, so we claimed seating outside the restaurant and ordered two dozen oysters. Eventually the silver serving dish arrived, and the fresh, raw oysters lying atop a bed of ice were sitting in the middle of the table.
Let’s be honest, they don’t look like the most appetizing or inviting of foods: little squidgy packages held inside a shell, sitting in a watery pool of liquid dying oyster gloop. It doesn’t have the ‘eat-me-now’ appeal that something like a freshly-boiled-and-dripping-with-butter new potato has. Of course the men in the group went first, covering up their nerves with loud, teasing bravado, and I watched the first (let’s call him Alpha) select a shell, bring it up to his lips and tip both his head and the shell back to smoothly slide the contents into his mouth. Followed by lots of lip smacking and mocking encouragement to the others.
I found my cojones and picked up an oyster: the shell feeling as cold and slick as if it had just been harvested from the sea, an odd sweetish, briny smell to it. I opted to try it without any accompaniments, wanting my first oyster experience to be pure and unadulterated. I raised my oyster shell to my lips and tipped both my head and the shell, easily sliding the oyster into my mouth.
In the split second it took for the oyster to touch my tongue I experienced so much: shock, the sudden fresh, cold taste of the sea, evoking memories of long gone family holidays and that first scent of seaweed and salt water you get as you approach the coast; sensation, slippery and smooth, leaving me with the impression that whatever was now held on my tongue lacked the substance and mass I would normally expect from something edible; uneasiness, the morsel I was sampling wasn’t leaving me in paroxysm of pleasure and wonder, and was instead making me feel a little uncomfortable; self-consciousness, eyes are on me, do I have to swallow or could I get away with removing it from my mouth? I swallowed with difficulty, and the gloopy mass of dying mollusc slid down my throat without resistance, leaving behind the lingering taste of sea water.
It wasn’t a proud moment in my gastronomic history, and unlike Anthony Bourdain who pins his lifelong adventure with food upon the first oyster he ever ate during a family holiday in France, I didn’t feel as if my life was about to take a new, dramatic turn. To be honest, for me it was a pretty disgusting experience, with my immediate impressions being closely linked to the similar textures experienced and endured whenever I’d caught an enthusiastic cold.
Fast forward to the present when, on Friday just gone, The Hublet advised me that he had a burning desire for oysters, and would I be on board if he brought a bushel of them from a local fish market, suggesting that we make it social and also invite some friends over to share the oysters and the experience? Now I was fully on board, my Hublet being a very savvy diner and admirably adventurous when it comes to food. He’s fully aware of my past solo voyage into the delights of oysters, and reassured me that he would steam these to give them more body, more substance and more texture.
He excitedly left for the fish market, and soon returned with a bushel. I now understand why The Hublet was unable to be more exact when I asked him roughly how many oysters came in an bushel, and he replied with, “Lots.” As I learned, a bushel is pretty much a whole sacks worth of oysters. He then set to work cleaning the shells and setting them into pans with beer and slices of lemon before putting them in the oven to steam cook.
The friends arrived, beer was drunk and my confidence was buoyed up in the company of such a happy group of enthusiastic oyster lovers. We prepared the table, laying out Tabasco, horseradish sauce, shell-shucking knives, plates, napkins and wedges of lemon and lime, and then The Hublet brought the first steaming pan out to us.
Unlike my previous oyster experience, these ones were not shucked and neutrally presented and I was instead faced with a large pan of big shells, some with further oyster, barnacle and clam shells anchored to their exterior, looking like dark, ominous mollusc dinosaurs. I followed The Hublet’s lead and selected my first oyster, grabbed my knife and carefully looked for the seam between the two shell halves, slid my knife inside and wriggled it around the edges until the hinge gave way and my oyster opened itself to me.
In its steamed form it definitely looked meatier than my previous oyster experience, so I drizzled on a little Tabasco and a squeeze of lime then brought the shell up to my lips, gathered my mouth around the mollusc and pulled it away from its shell. There was definitely more texture and substance to it, a more enjoyable weight to the morsel, with steamed oysters clearly providing a more satisfying mouthful than their raw counterparts. The taste was fairly inoffensive, putting me in mind of salty and bland boiled egg.
I manfully chowed my way through a respectable number of oysters, the beer definitely helping, shucking shell and slurping seafood like a boss, until I hit my limit and my body rebelled. I don’t think it was the actual oyster meat itself that was my undoing, but instead was due to the salty, briny liquid encased within the oyster shell accompanying each mouthful and which was the final taste on my tongue after each oyster had disappeared down my throat, so that after a certain amount my body decided it had had enough of this and refused to support my hand-to-pan attempt to grab another oyster.
The Hublet wasn’t disappointed with me because he knew I already had an aversion to oysters from my previous experience, and the rest of our friends helped him rapidly finish off a further pan of molluscs so nothing went to waste. He told me that the subsequent pan of oysters had been steamed a little longer and therefore the shells had opened a lot better, the meat had been cooked a little firmer and the nemesis liquid inside the shell had steamed/drained away a lot more, but he didn’t try to force me to eat another as he could see I’d hit my wall.
Overall I’m confident that The Hublet is a reliable authority on food, and as he now and again gets oyster cravings it won’t be the last time I get to experience this delight, however he has already started planning what sort of oyster dishes he can cook in addition to steamed to ensure that I will be able to join in the feast with as much enthusiasm as everyone else, and I truthfully believe that thanks to him my oyster encounters are going to get better and better as time goes by.