French oyster knife review

The three French oyster knives up for review- one deglon, one from E. Dehillerin, and one a generic knife.

The three French oyster knives up for review- one deglon, one from E. Dehillerin, and one a generic knife.

So, followers of the "Chesapeake Oysters" page may have seen the photo above recently, taken during my trip to Paris. Of course, as an 'ostreaphile' (or oyster connoisseur), I can't help myself- when I travel, oysters mysteriously seem to get included on my itinerary- whether it's consuming them by the dozen or peppering raw bar staff with questions about their products. Oyster related tools are another fun thing I like to explore. For every culture that loves oysters, they have usually developed regional ways of opening, serving and eating shellfish. That also means cool and creative oyster knives (which also make easy to pack, functional souvenirs to impress your friends with later).

A quick survey on facebook indicated that most people thought the blue knife to be the sturdiest-looking, with the black knife following closely behind. The wooden-handled knife from Paris' classic chef-supply store, Dehillerin, was viewed by one skeptical reader as "a trip to the emergency room," so, not a great vote of confidence there.

So, once home from Paris, I was excited to get a couple dozen oysters and try them out. After a few attempts (and no trips to the hospital, thankfully), here's the results:

The pretty, petite Deglon was a winner.

The pretty, petite Deglon was a winner.

First was the Deglon. I used it at the hinge and was first struck by how petite the knife was. Both the blade and the handle were quite small- much smaller than my regular go-to oyster knives. However, it felt sturdy and worked well to deftly open the oyster, with almost no tearing to the oyster's meat. I wasn't worried about the tip breaking or anything, and I felt that it would stand up to a good amount of use. Overall, it was a great little knife, and the handle is a little sexy, too.

The extra-sharp generic knife was not bad.

The extra-sharp generic knife was not bad.

Next, I tried the generic shucking knife. Like the Deglon, it was much smaller than the typical American shucking knives I tend to use- the handle was smaller and the blade was shorter (and much more pointy!). Unlike the Deglon, it did feel insubstantial and as one commenter pointed out, the fragile-looking pointiness of the blade made me a little nervous to attack the hinge with my customary gusto. So, before I went for it, I made sure my shucking glove was ready. The result was okay. It was a decent, clean shuck with no damage to the oyster, but it took longer than usual. I considered doing the French side-shuck, but that's not my favored approach so I scrapped it. Overall, this was an adequate knife. Not a disaster, and certainly it worked well enough, but I wasn't in love. It wasn't oyster art.

The lovely and useless Dehellerin.

The lovely and useless Dehellerin.

Finally, I got to the final knife of the evening- the shucking knife from the iconic E. Dehillerin cooking store. It is actually made for the store as its store-brand staple, so I had high hopes for this beautifully crafted oyster knife. However, those hopes were dashed as I attempted to shuck my first oyster. The blade runs all the way through the handle, yet it still felt like I was going to break it at any moment at the hinge. Figuring it was user error, I headed around to the side, French-style. That produced the oyster you see above- a blendered, destroyed mess. The knife felt insubstantial and frankly didn't navigate the interior of the oyster shell well at all. It's a shame since the knife is so pretty, but perhaps we can find some use for it at my house paring apples or something.

The final verdict? The Deglon was the hands-down winner. It was inexpensive, sturdy, and fun to use, and felt different enough from my American-made knives that it warranted its 'souvenir' status. Even better is that you don't have to go to France to get one! You can buy one
here on Amazon for the very reasonable price of $13, which is approximately $870 less than a round-trip flight to Paris (although then you miss out on savoring the amazing French oysters, which in my mind, are truly a priceless life experience).

 

French Oysters- PART I

Oysters on offer in Paris' Buci Market

Oysters on offer in Paris' Buci Market

While in America it's the season to be merry, in Paris, that merriment isn't found under a tree- it's found inside an oyster's shell. Here, deep winter means oysters- the traditional food of Christmas and New Year's Eve. In fact, almost 50% of the 130,000 tons of oysters annually produced in France are eaten over the holiday season, and all of those oysters are raw. Oyster vendors are all over the Paris streets, and every bistro seems to have scores of patrons sitting in outside in winter coats, savoring their briny, freshly-shucked shellfish with copious quantities of dry white wine.

Oysters, prawns, crabs and snails are all beautifully displayed to tempt hungry Parisian passerby.

Oysters, prawns, crabs and snails are all beautifully displayed to tempt hungry Parisian passerby.

Much of the American shellfish consumerism has echoes of the French tradition. Today, the Chesapeake is just beginning to differentiate between oysters from different regions and to brand each variety as unique. For the French, distinguishing the different properties of 'merroir' is old news. They are oyster lovers, going all the way back to the first oyster connoisseurs, the Romans, whose oyster culture and obsession were as much a part of the Empire's legacy as viticulture and wine. The Romans conquered the Gallic Celts and set about sampling their shellfish- and when possible, shipped them back to Rome for the luxury seafood market.  As with the English oyster tradition that I explored in Chesapeake Oysters, the Romans helped the French recognize the rare treat they had abounding in their vast coastline.

The native oyster, Crassostrea edulis, is a rarity in France, where 90% of the oyster harvest is the asian Crassostrea gigas. Marketed as "plates" or "Belons," these round, flat oysters have an intense flavor profile with a strong coppery finish.

The native oyster, Crassostrea edulis, is a rarity in France, where 90% of the oyster harvest is the asian Crassostrea gigas. Marketed as "plates" or "Belons," these round, flat oysters have an intense flavor profile with a strong coppery finish.

The oysters the Romans favored and that later became an essential part of the French diet in the 19th century are not the same species of oysters modern Parisians enjoy, by and large. The native Crassostrea edulis- wide, flat, round and with a taste like licking a copper penny- were decimated by mysterious diseases in the 1920's when oyster science was still in its infancy, and a different species, Crassostrea angulata or the 'Portuguese oyster,' was introduced to continue to support the market. The Portuguese oyster was widely popular (and is still invokes much oyster nostalgia today amongst those who remember its apparently unparalleled flavor) until the 1960's and 1970's, when two diseases, Marteilia refringens and Bonamia ostrae destroyed the oyster stocks. By the late 1970's, France's oyster production had declined from 20,000 tons to only 2,000 tons a year. In response, the French embraced a non-native species- Crassostrea gigas or the "creuse" oyster- as part of the state's "Resur" plan. The introduced oysters flourished where the angulata had perished, and today gigas oysters are now ubiquitous in the country's oyster regions- representing 90% of France's annual oyster production. Edulis varieties are still produced, though they are much more rare, and as you might guess, significantly more expensive than the common gigas varieties.

No 2 and No 3 oysters displayed in a street market.

No 2 and No 3 oysters displayed in a street market.

All this history and context said, though, oysters are meant to be eaten- and to help guide consumers along the way, France has developed a framework for its oyster growers, differentiating by size and by intensity of cultivation. The sizing is simple- oyster range between a size 5 at the smallest and a size 0 at the largest. Unlike the States, where plenty of folks will fork over a premium for a Kumamoto the size of a squirrel's ear (many women in particular disdain large oysters- take that as you will), here bigger oysters cost more. It makes sense in terms of sheer volume, so those who prefer smaller oyster should take note- France will treat you right!

From top right: 6 fine de claires No.3, 6 speciales de claires No.3, 6 pousses en claires No.3, and 6 perle blanches No.3. 

From top right: 6 fine de claires No.3, 6 speciales de claires No.3, 6 pousses en claires No.3, and 6 perle blanches No.3. 

 

The other method of differentiation between oysters has to do with production quality. France has seven different oyster production zones that are treated much like wine appellations on land. Oysters from these regions, ranging from Normandy in the north to the Thau lagoon in the Mediterranean, all have specific flavor profiles reflecting the salinity, tidal activity, and algal concentration of the local environment. Also, depending on location, oysters might be raised in bags, on ropes, or through extensive culture (scattered on the bottom of the sea). However, just raising oysters to market maturation is not considered enough. Unlike in the United States, where a strong taste of the sea is preferred, the French like their oysters fat and sweet. To achieve this, oysters are finished in man-made salt-water ponds known as 'claires.' These ponds are infused with pulses of freshwater, and their high algal content allows oysters transferred from the ocean to fatten and to take on unique, complex flavor profiles. The longer oysters are finished in claires, the more their taste matures and the fleshier they become.

Edulis Oysters in a claire at Belon. Image from wikimedia commons.

Edulis Oysters in a claire at Belon. Image from wikimedia commons.

Often, middlemen will buy oysters from regions like Normandy and Brittany known to produce meaty shellfish, and transfer them to claires for finishing, selling the final product at a higher profit. These claire oysters are differentiated by how much volume their meat takes up within the oyster shell. The longer they've been in a claire, the more algae they've eaten and the fatter they are. Salt water oysters, known as 'fines' are the least fat, and 'speciales' are the next weighty. 'Fine de claire' is reserved for claire-finished oysters of the next highest quality, while 'speciale de claires,' and 'pousses' move up the scale to 'perles' at the pinnacle.

Seafood stall on the Rue de Buci market.

Seafood stall on the Rue de Buci market.


All in all, it is a rigorous and intricate system developed over 120 years. Oysters here are strictly cultivated- ultimately a boon for the consumer. All this information is honestly quite more than most oyster eaters are interested in, so in my following post, I'll tackle the French oyster CliffNotes. What to choose? Which oysters are good? How are they served? What qualities define a 'good' French oyster? What is the French custom for eating them? What wine should I order to pair them with?

Check back later this week for your guide to ordering and enjoying oysters like a pro in France! In the meantime, as the French say, Bon Annee (Happy New Year) and more importantly, bon appetit!






Oyster middens- the ghost of oysters past

Oyster midden overlooking the Chester River.Image by author.

Oyster midden overlooking the Chester River.Image by author.

Throughout the Chesapeake, where the mixture of salt and fresh water is just right, thin wafers are tumbled by the tide. Faded remnants of once robust oyster beds, these are middens- oyster shell beaches testament to the Chesapeake's past oyster populations. Made up of discarded oyster shells, middens still exist where often no oysters thrive today. Beach glass and pebbles are mixed into the softly crumbling oyster shells, and often beachcombers will find arrowheads or pottery and other detritus from the people that came down to the shore, ate oysters here, and left. Middens can be hundreds or even thousands of years old. Some are colonial, many are pre-colonization remnants of Indian winter camps. All are ghosts of a sort, haunting our contemporary landscape with reminders of the winter feasts savored, centuries ago.

A midden on Eastern Neck Island. Image by author.

A midden on Eastern Neck Island. Image by author.

A Virginia midden- mussels, oyster shells, and reeds. Image by author.

A Virginia midden- mussels, oyster shells, and reeds. Image by author.

I love middens, but then again, I love to feel like I am cheek-to-jowl with the past. The experience of almost-tangible time travel is addictive. Middens powerfully convey that feeling, existing along Chesapeake tributaries too fresh, too sedimented, or too degraded to support the delicate balance of an oyster colony. HERE, they say, is what this Bay used to be like. You could fill your belly on an oyster bar where today there's a marina, a road, an empty stretch of cornfield, the terminus to an overgrown trail. Oyster middens convey a subsistence past where today only a convenience culture persists. Like old paint peeling off a wall, middens reveal history hidden just below the surface- faded, but persistent, and beautiful.