12 November, 2006

a slice of heaven on an oyster shell

But first, before I tell you about my afternoon in heaven, I must give credit to the owner of my photograph of sushi, in my previous post. At first I didn't feel the need to credit her because her copyright watermark, "La Petite Chinoise," is on the photo. I just found it by googling images of sushi, not having one of my own! But then I found myself reading her blog, and it's really quite interesting. She lives in Paris, but happened to be visiting London, where she found not only Nobu London, but also "Books for Cooks" in Notting Hill, two of my favorite places in the world. So visit her blog, do.

Also, I must say that I am working on how to make the hotlinks to other posts in my own blog go right to the section that talks about the thing I'm referring to, not just to the whole post. I can see that it might be quite irritating to click on "Books for Cooks" and get sent to a post that is about a lot of other things before it gets to the mention of the bookstore. I'm on it! There must be a way. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy meandering through the various pointless things I have to say before I get to the pointless thing you thought you wanted to read. It's all such a challenge.

Speaking of challenges, I drummed up my courage this morning and... drove! To the stable to drop Avery off for her day of mucking out and such, and then to the Marylebone Farmer's Market. I really got myself scared of driving, since my horrific accident when I lived here last (don't worry, nobody got hurt except the car). But not driving is one of those things that limits me, makes me even more timid than I normally am, which is saying something. I don't like the idea that as life goes on, I do fewer things. I want to do more things! So John had encouraged me to drive, and I had demurred. But that's ridiculous. You can't just shrink into a person who either walks or lets someone else drive her around, whether it's in a bus or a tube or a cab. So I took key in hand, reassured a dubious Avery that all would be well ("not only 'can' you drive, Mommy, but 'should' you drive?"), and got in the car. I should have known Emmy would not let me down. All was well! And as my reward I got to shop to my heart's content, knowing that there was a nice car seat waiting for the ridiculously heavy bag when I was finished. And a handy car park doubles as the market anyway, so I just parked her and was off.

I sampled so many things that it was silly to think I had to have lunch as well. Let's see, I had fresh pesto with a little bread stick, and a slice of Red William pear, and a bit of goat's cheese on a little biscuit, and some apple juice! Then, however, I happened upon the fishmonger, one Maldon Oyster & Seafood Company , located at Birchwood Farm, Cock Clarks, Chelmsford, Essex. Their concern at the market consists of a sort of elevated truck whose side opens out, with three wonderful blokes behind the full-to-overflowing iced counter. One fellow helped me, and I was about ready to marry him by the time I was finished. "My little girl likes lemon sole, and Dover sole," I said. "But I'd like to have money left over after dinner to send her to university, as well, so what would you recommend?" He put his grizzled head to one side, considered me, looked over his wares and said, "Time was when people asked special for whiting for the kiddies," he said. He pulled a fillet from its bed of ice and laid it before me reverentially. "Take a look at that, my love. That's a delicate fish, that is. I've never seen one that size, off the West Country, that is." So I succumbed. He wrapped it up, shouting to one of his mates, "Don't forget the brill, now, everything's for sale except the staff," and to another customer, "I'll tell you the 'erring's lovely today, just lovely. Would you like it with the 'ard roe, or the soft roe?" To me he said, "This whiting, now, to get it any fresher you'd have to get a sight wet. What else can I get for you, my love?" So I said as how I'd have a nice dressed crab, which is such a luxury considering the horrible experience I had once trying to get any usable quantity of crab from its shell. He sifted through the piles and came up with the best.

But then came the piece de resistance. I had noticed a Frenchy-looking girl queueing up at the side of the truck, waiting in front of a low table to the edge of which was a chalkboard proclaiming "1 pound per shucked oyster". Now, I was introduced to raw oysters late in life, and have never been a huge devotee although I like them, and I will eat them if I trust the source. Also I adore oyster stew, for which I will give you a perfect recipe nearer to Christmas time. But one summer I found myself in, of all places, Waterloo, Iowa with my parents-in-law and they took me to a seafood festival at their beloved country club, Sunnyside. I know what you're thinking: a seafood festival in a state that embodies "land-locked"? I thought the same thing. But I was a guest, and they were going, and I will do almost anything for my parents-in-law. I was seated next to one of my favorite people in the world, their friend Hugh, whose wife Janey gave me my first cooking lesson, lo these (eek) 23 years ago. Gosh, that's scary. She's a true French chef and I was in love right away, with her, her adorable and racy husband, with Iowa and life in general. So Hugh poked me in the ribs and said, "Gonna have some oysters, Kristen?" "You know, Hugh, they're not my favorite thing. Plus you know what they say about oysters..." I said. "Oh, now, come on," Hugh teased me mercilessly. "You can't say you're writing a cookbook, you can't say you even care about food, if you don't like oysters on the half shell. And these will be the best you've ever had. The freshest, anyway." I closed my lips upon my skepticism on this point, and decided to take the bait, so to speak. Well, it was a revelation. As a fish chef once told me at the great Mitchell's Fish Market in Indianapolis once told me, "We have to break the mold on freshness because the fish comes from so far away. You coastal people can get lazy, thinking it's right there." And obviously it held true for Waterloo, Iowa, that glorious July night. Thank you, Hugh.

So today I was in such a good mood, and such a food mood, that I thought I'd have one. The beefy guy in his wet and bloody apron laid the oyster from the Blackwater River in Essex on a well-worn wooden block with an oyster-shell-shaped indentation in the center, and advanced on it with a proper oyster knife, split it open, slid his knife around under the oyster, and placed it on a little plate piled with crushed ice. "There you are, now," he said as he tendered it. There was a little plate of lemon wedges, a dish of salt, a dish of chopped shallots in red wine vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco. I squeezed on some lemon juice, added a drip of vinegar and slurped it down. Ahhh! Icy, icy cold, fresh, briny, just sublimely fresh and perfect. "I'm going to have to have another of those, if you please," I said, handing over another pound coin. "Oh, make it two more." He looked on, smiling slightly with pleasure at my pleasure. So guess where I'm going for my Christmas stew oysters? Something to look forward to.

I came home with my laden L.L. Bean canvas bag (I'm trying valiantly to stop the invasion of plastic carrier bags in my home), and a slight case of indigestion at so many different foods! I thought of the wonderful poem by Egon Ronay, the Hungarian restaurant critic whose food guides have been bibles in my two London homes. It starts out like this...

A Food Inspector's Lament

Spare a thought for the bloke in the corner
With the newspaper, notebook and pen
He put away four courses at lunchtime
And this evening he's at it again

Before the black pudding (with scallops)
Came veloute of butternut squash
'Compliments of the kitchen,' how charming
(And veloute make soup awfully posh!)

And afterwards, sea bass 'n' pesto
Risotto and Shaved Parmesan too
With buckets of oil and balsamic,
What happened to old-fashioned stew?


So spare a thought for the bloke in the corner
With the heart attack lying in wait,
And if he seems a bit down in the mouth, well,
He's got rather a lot on his plate.

Now, to get the 12 stanzas in between, you'll either have to buy the food guide, or... come to my house and borrow it.

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