On the night of San Silvestro, known to most of the world as New Year’s Eve, it’s an Italian tradition that the table spread includes oysters. And you might not know it, but these prized molluscs were not only known and loved back in prehistoric times; they have long been a fundamental element of the Mediterranean diet, and indeed of coastal diets the world over, in Asia especially.
The famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, known to the world as the unearther of Troy, found some enormous piles of oyster shells during his excavations at Mycenae, suggesting that they were crucial in the Greek cuisine of more than two thousand years ago. You can see why: when you consider that oysters are fairly easy to catch and open, and simple to prepare, it makes sense that they were an everyday staple.
It was the ancient Romans who turned that everyday staple into the luxury (not to say lusty) product that we know today. When they weren’t locking horns with some enemy, they were throwing themselves into immense, table-groaning blow-outs, of the kind described by Petronius in his Satyricon. Again, one has to marvel at the Romans’ genius for logistics. It has long been known that oyster farming flourished on the French coasts at the time, but there is also evidence that the Romans imported oysters from as far afield as Britain, and we have to wonder how they managed to keep them fresh, even alive, on those long and painstaking voyages.
Oysters have garnered many myths and legends over the centuries, from their reputed aphrodisiacal powers – for which they were denounced by Savonarola – to obscure medicinal properties, sworn by in various parts of the world. To be honest, all these folk tales just seem like pretexts to eat the darn things, as if their very deliciousness weren’t reason enough. Another common saying is that oysters are “good” in all months that have an r in them – so, eight months of the year. Back in the day, oysters were usually cooked, preferably over the coals. It was the debauchee par excellence, Giacomo Casanova, who is said to have invented our current way of eating them: raw, with the fingers, straight from the shell, in an act of the most unfettered sensuality.
History has produced other great oyster-guzzlers. Balzac was reported to have consumed more than a hundred in a sitting, while Hemingway put away a mere two dozen, served in a vinaigrette and washed down with great libations of champagne.
Oyster farming today is not a simple process. The larvae are harvested in their infant stage, which lasts for well over a year; they eventually grow into adults and are subsequently refined and purified in so-called claires, the basins in which they reach that level of fineness and delicacy that we so love. Certain specialized restaurants offer whole menus of diverse species (or subspecies) of these prized bivalves, but really, there are only two types of oysters: cupped and flat, with the latter being more sought-after. Flat oysters can be found white - these are known as belons – and green, or Marennes. They are almost always eaten raw, but gastrosophs and gourmets manage to disagree even on this: some like them au naturel, and some with a squeeze of lemon, which purists – myself among them – consider the worst of heresies, as it gets in the way of the oysters’ aromatic complexity.
Recently, top chefs have tried all sorts of interesting experiments with oysters: steaming them, baking them, frying them, emulsifying them. But there’s no doubt that nothing comes close to eating them raw for unparalleled sensuality and decadence. And when we think of the great New Year’s Eve banquet, we inevitably imagine them paired with a classic method sparkling wine, almost invariably champagne. But in France, you’ll sometimes find oyster stalls that serve them with still whites, or even Muscadet.
For us layfolk, we should drink what we feel like drinking. So from all of us at the Vivere di Gusto editorial team, let’s raise a glass to a wonderful 2023!
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans”.