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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Oysters and a life of crime

     Police procedurals have never been my cup of tea.  I much prefer a cozy type mystery with an amateur sleuth such as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.  However, because I am presently into an all-things-Paris mood, I couldn’t pass an opportunity to read a culinary mystery set in that city, even if it is a police procedural.

     Capucine Le Tellier is a papa’s girl, coming from a bourgeois Parisian upper-class family, married to a high-profile gourmet and restaurant reviewer (who ostensibly sports the same name as the book’s author), she could have a glamorous life, just as her husband repeatedly tells her, full of caviar and comfort, but chooses instead the dark world of “la crim” in the streets of Paris.

     The intrigue in The Grave Gourmet centers about corporate espionage, when the president of world-renown car manufacturer Renault is found dead in one of Paris’ most famous restaurants: Diapason.  Diapason and its Owner-Chef  Jean-Basile Labrousse sound very much like the now defunct “Le Divelec”, a famous restaurant that for decades delighted Paris with a uniquely crafted menu of fish and shellfish.  The restaurant became even more notorious when Chef Jacques Le Divellec created the famous lobster press in conjunction with silversmiths Christofle.  The piece works in exactly the same way as a duck press, which extracts the blood and juices from a duck carcass to be transformed into a delicate elixir of a sauce for duck à l’orange, but in this case, it does the same for a lobster carcass.  Consummate gourmets would know that a proper lobster sauce requires the crustacean’s carcass for eximious flavor.

Jacques Le Divellec and his lobster press
     The plot is no short of red-herrings in this novel, sometimes too many of them, which made it necessary to do a second reading.  It will also prove definitely useful to have a map of Paris at hand, as a car chase through the Bois de Boulogne and into Paris’s chic 7ème arrondissement take the reader into a frenzy of streets and roundabouts. 

     Capuccine’s investigation is dizzying to say the least, and the book does not offer many culinary options, as I would have expected in a culinary mystery.  Mainly, the victim dies of saxitoxin, a poison found in spoiled shellfish that causes paralytic death.  The medium were, apparently, oysters, which were served in the form of a sorbet in-between meals to Prèsident Delage during his last dinner at Diapason.

     Oysters have always been considered a chic hors d’ouvre.  They should be consumed in Autumn and Winter and they pair wonderfully with a chilled glass of champagne.  Ideally, they should be gulped along with water inside the shell and may be a few drops of lemon.  To make them more special, why not try the classic mignonette.  Basically, a simple sauce made of red wine vinegar, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar dissolved into it, then add a very finely chopped shallot.  Spoon a minimal amount on top of the oyster then let the cool flavor slide down your throat.  Follow by a sip of your best champagne, and tell me you’re not in heaven.

Perrier-Jouët champagne is ideal to accompany oysters.  It has a hint of fruityness without being totally dry.
     In a typical French brasserie, oysters can sometimes be served warm.  The following alternative is very savory without being overpowering, something we should always strive for when eating oysters.  Their flavor must always prevail.

Huîtres chaudes:

Ingredients for 20 oysters:

·         3.5 oz finely chopped shallots
·         1 Tbsp. of butter
·         2/3 cup crème fraîche
·         Freshly ground white pepper
·         ½ tsp. curry
·         1 Tbsp brandy


     Shack open the oysters (preserving the water), leaving them in the lower half of the shell and
discarding the other half.  Put the shallots with the water from the oysters in a pan, add butter and reduce by half.

     Heat the broiler.

     Add the crème fraîche to the sauce, season with white pepper, curry and brandy.  Reduce by a third while stirring.

Arrange oysters on a plate and make a bed with coarse sea-salt or brightly coloured gravel stones (the latter will make for a very appealing presentation for a cocktail party).  Spoon some sauce on each shell and brown the oysters quickly for a few minutes under the broiler until they are golden brown. Serve immediately.

     Yet another option to serve oysters had me a bit skeptical at first I must admit, due to its slightly Mexican twist.  After all, anything Mexican means spices and chili, something oysters shy away from.  However, I need not have worried.  The Aleppo chile just adds the necessary hint of flavor without being spicy, and the chile oil rounds up a mouthful of soft vinegary flavor that washes away the day’s worries.

Oysters with saffron-pickled cucumbers and Aleppo:

Ingredients for a dozen oysters:

·         1 cup white wine vinegar
·         1 cup water
·         3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
·         1 Tbsp. Himalayan pink salt
·         2 tps granulated sugar
·         ½ English cucumber, two opposite sides peeled and cucumber sliced into ⅛-inch strips, stacked and then sliced crosswise into ⅛-inch matchsticks
·         2 pinches saffron threads
·         2 tps. finely chopped fresh dill
·         2 cups coarse salt or coloured gravel
· ½ teaspoon Aleppo chile
· Chile oil


First pickle the cucumbers: In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring the vinegar, water, garlic, salt and sugar to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for an additional 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the cucumber matchsticks and saffron. Transfer the cucumbers and the pickling liquid to a bowl and set aside for 1 hour at room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, preferably overnight.

            Transfer 2 tablespoons of the cucumber pickling liquid to a medium bowl. Drain the chilled                           cucumbers (save the pickling liquid for another use) and toss them with the reserved pickling liquid and the dill.

To a medium bowl, add the salt and enough cold water to create the consistency of wet sand; or spread a bed of coloured gravel.  Shuck the oysters and nestle each one into the salt or gravel bed. Top each oyster with some of the pickled cucumbers and pickling liquid and finish with a pinch of Aleppo chile and a few drops of chile oil.

For either of the last two ideas at your next oyster party, a nice cold beer will do.  In honour of the true French brasserie, I prefer either Belge or French beer.  Salut, to a life of crime and scrumptious eating!