Hemingway puts the knife in

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The cool, luscious descriptions of the oysters consumed by Ernest Hemingway in Paris have never been bettered. Christopher Hirst explores the shellfish starters in A Moveable Feast

I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there… 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.

Later, when taken out to lunch at a far posher joint, Hemingway was able to trade up in the oyster dept.

[I ordered] two dozen of the expensive flat, faintly coppery marennes… picking them from their bowl of crushed ice on the silver plate, watching their unbelievably delicate brown edges react and cringe as I squeezed lemon juice on them and separated the holding muscle from the shell and lifted them to chew them carefully.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964)

Though written late in life and published posthumously, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir about his spell in Paris in the Twenties, has the same clarity and concision as his startling first novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (1926) set in Paris and Spain. Oysters have an irresistible allure for writers (I have a dozen books on the subject on my shelves), but Hemingway’s closely observed account has an exceptional freshness and vivacity. He famously declared, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Though I never stayed long in Paris, I share a little of that nostalgia. I visited the capital for a few weeks in my twenties and later returned frequently when I had a girlfriend there. One of the things that makes life special in Paris is oysters. Highly esteemed and widely available, their rate of consumption ensures good quality. On my first visit, I was taken to La Coupole on Boulevard Montparnasse, where oysters are shucked outdoors by professional oyster openers known as écaillers. This unenviable trade – the shucking continues in all weathers – acts as a sort of street-side advertisement at the larger Parisian brasseries but it does have a practical aspect. The chilly boulevards and the kelp in which the oysters are packed act as a natural refrigerator as if your lunch has come straight from the Atlantic. Hemingway captures this salty, oceanic freshness perfectly. The economic treat of a dozen of the small oysters known as portugaises accompanied by the shock of a sharp white wine would have made a stimulating starter. The “faint metallic taste” detected by Hemingway reveals his keen appreciation of flavour. I’d relished oysters for decades but it was only when invited to Billingsgate Market for a comparative tasting of various UK oysters that a metallic tang, quite strong in some of them, became evident.

The portugaises Hemingway ate on the Left Bank are akin to the Pacific oysters that now dominate the UK market. Known as huitres creuses (deep oysters), they did not actually come from Portugal but were almost certainly raised in Brittany. The name derives from a story about a ship called the Morlaisien, which ditched its cargo of Portuguese oysters, believed to be spoiled, in the Gironde estuary in the 1860s. Some oysters survived and proved to be more disease-resistant and faster growing than the flat, round oysters that were native to France and Britain. Still often seen on French fish stalls, marennes are a larger portugaise with a distinctive green hue gained from the beds where they are grown near Marennes and the island of Oléron on the Atlantic coast of France. The two dozen ordered by Hemingway would have constituted a fairly substantial if somewhat uniform meal but it probably acted as an amuse-bouche to stimulate the appetite.

Money is never better spent than on oysters and doubtless the mature Hemingway moved  up again when he took to dining at swanky spots like the Paris Ritz (a hotel he claimed to have liberated in 1944). The apogee of the oyster species is the flat, disc-like bivalve that the British know as natives and the French as Bélons (after the River Bélon in Brittany where they are raised). The flesh of this rare luxury  is plump, sweet, creamy with a complex flavour that is impossible to define, as another fine writer Eleanor Clark admitted in her masterpiece The Oysters of Locmariaquer.  “Music or the colour of the sea are easier to describe,” she admits before trying to do it. “You are eating the sea, that’s it, only the sensation of a gulp of seawater has been wafted out of it by some sorcery, and are on the edge of remembering you don’t know what, mermaids or the sudden smell of kelp on the ebb tide or a poem you read once. Something connected with the flavour of life itself…”

At their best, oysters take us back to the saline world of our distant ancestors, it’s the same ancient salt that we taste in our blood and tears. Of course, if you want to be happy and to make plans like Hemingway, it might help to wash your oysters down with a glass of Sancerre.

Illustration by Alison Hirst

What to have with your oysters

Mignonette sauce

Delicately flavoured native oysters are best eaten only with a drop of lemon juice or nothing at all. Rock oysters, also known as Pacifics or Portuguese, can take a stronger sauce. Alternatives title salt and include lemon juice, Tabasco and Worcester sauce. I read once that the late Clement Freud like to mix all three together in an empty oyster shell and dip each shucked oyster in this little bath before consuming. Such phosphoric dunking is not recommended but I’ve recently taken to another  condiment that must have been on Hemingway’s table in Paris. In 40-odd years of oyster-eating, I’ve turned down mignonette sauce but I’ve recently taken to this mixture of white wine vinegar with finely chopped shallots. I thought it would overwhelm the oyster but, it turns out to be a happy marriage. The French know best. They consume upwards of 130,000 tonnes of oysters per year compared to around 1,500 tonnes in the UK. Mignonette means “favourite” or “darling”. This recipe is based on one in The Hemingway Cookbook, which ranges from fried baby eels to fillet of lion.

  • 120ml dry white wine
  • 2 tbsp fine chopped shallots
  • 1 tsp fine chopped parsley
  • Heat wine in small saucepan until it is simmering. Add chopped shallots and return to simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in a little salt and pepper. Leave to cool. Add chopped parsley and stir. Add a tiny amount (no more than a quarter tsp) to one oyster.

Spicy oyster tapas

Oysters are best eaten fresh and raw but if you have a glut it is worthwhile cooking them. Another reason for applying heat is that many people who cannot stand the idea of raw oysters will happily take onboard the cooked shellfish. This tapas recipe from Portugal would, of course, be ideal for portugaise or Pacific oysters.

  • 1 doz oysters
  • 1 clove garlic.minced
  • 3 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp water
  • 2 tsp tomato purée
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper
  • salt

Mix all ingredients except oysters in a small bowl and leave to blend for 30 minutes. Warm oven to 200C. Open oysters and place on foil-covered baking tray. Add a dribble of the sauce to each oyster. Place tray in oven and cook for 10 minutes.