Visiting Paris was one of the most sensual experiences of my life, in the purest sense of the word. The city is visually arresting, laced with a soundtrack of street musicians, overlaid with savory smells escaping from corner bistros, and as personal as the feel of a thick silk scarf, knotted at your throat. So it should hardly be a surprise that the French give oysters the same treatment. Presentation, freshness of the shellfish, accompanying traditional sides, even down to the precise art of pairing wines with your oysters— all is artfully considered. It's a treat to be an oyster lover in France. Here, achieving nirvana on the half shell is as easy- especially if you know what you're asking for.
In French, oysters are called 'huitres' (whee-trah). They are a seasonal treat, and much like in the Chesapeake, they follow the "R" month rule- oysters are available in the coldest months of the year, from September to April. They are especially popular around the Christmas holidays.
Unlike the States, however, they diverge in how those winter oysters are consumed. While back at home you might be used to oyster stew, oysters Rockefeller and oyster fritters to name a few, here pretty much all oysters are consumed raw. The French feel (and I agree) that the delicate, complex flavor of oysters is best enjoyed as unvarnished and as fresh as possible. Cooking makes oysters a vehicle for other stuff, which is fine- but if you want to truly savor an oyster, you should do it on the half shell.
So, finding an oyster place isn't hard. Generally, most bistros actually display their shellfish outside as a way to entice passerby to stop and suck down a few dozen. Along with prawns, scallops, lobsters and other maritime treats, oysters are gorgeously arrayed along with their tags and shipping labels. This is one of the ways that the French go about trumpeting the freshness of their seafood. As I mentioned, they believe this is paramount- and it is the right of every consumer to explicitly demand to know the date, location, and particulars of their shellfish.
Once you've found a cozy corner cafe of France to occupy for an hour or two (preferably with a good view of the passerby) with a few dozen oysters, consider the menu. French oysters are numbered 0-5, with 0 being the largest oysters and 5 being the smallest. Price-wise, it generally follows that the smallest oysters, straight from the sea are the cheapest, known as 'fines.' Next comes 'speciales,' then 'fine de claires' and finally 'speciales de claires.' The very best are 'pousse en claire.' Anything with 'claire' in the name has been finished in a salt water pond, and the longer the oyster has been in the pond, the better it is considered and the price will rise accordingly. My recommendation is to go with a standard size (I found oysters considered a '3' to be about standard US 3.5 inches), and get a variety of quality oysters- maybe 4 or 2 of each, and see which kinds you like the best.
French oysters are not usually served with many condiments. Even a migonette is rare. Usually, you get bread, butter, and a half a lemon. Eschewing even the lemon will gain you appreciative looks from the raw bar attendant. As you attack the oysters, one of the first things you'll notice is that the oyster is still attached to the shell. "Does that guy actually know what he's doing??" you'll think, and in the States, that would be the case. Here, the French only cut the top adductor muscle (the firm flesh inside the oyster that opens and closes the shell), not the bottom. This, they believe, keeps the oyster alive longer, guaranteeing freshness for the consumer. Usually, they give you a sharp knife to do the job yourself. It is considered good form to use it to scrape every bit of adductor off and eat it all.
Of course, you need a good wine to wash all these oysters down with- and for the French, this too, is a thoughtfully-considered process. Dry whites are considered to be the only appropriate pairing. A Sauvignon Blanc is good, a Sancerre is better, a Pouilly Fume is great, and a Chablis is awesome. Order it by the verre (glass, pronounced VER) or the pichet (carafe, pronounced pee-chay) and you're all set.
Now, if you really want to next-level your oyster experience in France, order a 'plateau des fruits de mer' (a seafood tower) and prepare yourself for the most beautiful, delicious, diverse shellfish experience outside of a living oyster reef. Oh, and come hungry. When I worked up the nerve to order myself the much fabled seafood tower, a bed of crushed ice was the setting for a panoply of maritime wonders that would tempt a mermaid- 3 kinds of oysters (including the famous "flats"- edulis native oysters), langoustines, whelks, prawns, an entire crayfish, crab legs, snails, and various other kinds of creatures I didn't even know how to describe. The tower bristled with different implements designed to attack the defenses of each particular species. Needless to say, the seafood tower was a memorable meal of epic proportions- perhaps the closest I've ever gotten to channeling, say, a narwhal. It was incredible!
So, that's it folks. If you are lucky enough to take a trip to France, treat yourself while you're there to one of the finest oyster experiences and the most elevated oyster culture in the world. The oysters are superb, and it is certainly worth incurring a little jet lag and a hefty l'addition (the check) in order to check French huitres off your bucket list.