On Boxing Day, Oysters, Champagne, and a Brush With a Star

Paris, December 26, 2016

THE best kind of holiday mornings are those where you sleep in, disappear under the sheets, and proclaim to the sun, “You aren’t going to wake me up, even if my alarm isn’t.” Our morning dawdled, fitting for one still gripped with jet lag, and the other who hardly caught deep, meaningful winks of sleep the entire week on account of the mad hours passed at the pastry shop over a Yuletide season of endless customers seeking good eats and and even better sweets.

Had there not been lunch plans at home, we might not have moved till much later. F flew out the apartment about eleven to find some oysters, or we’d have had nothing for the table come noon when his parents joined us for lunch.

Fortunately, the oyster man was open on a day when most businesses are closed. And so, our table was filled with four platters of four dozen Normandy oysters, precious saline jewels from Isigny Sur Mer—Isigny, a region famous not just for their oysters, but butter.

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My mind clicked when Jean-Claude, F’s father, explained to me the provenance of these oysters while shucking them expertly with his giant charcutier’s hands. Why, of course, that’s how Beurre d’Isigny (Isigny Butter) got its name! I would soon learn too, that Jean-Claude is himself a native of Isigny.

The last time I had watched my elder brother shuck oysters only three nights before at our family Christmas dinner, the whole process seemed arduous and dangerous (and it is!). But my brother is a lawyer and Jean-Claude is a retired butcher and one-time caterer, so his actions were deft and swift, always ending with a suave slurp of that fine layer of oyster flesh that sticks delicately on the inside of the top shell.

It certainly helped that he had a prop fashioned by the genius of a carpenter—a piece of wood, slightly larger than an oyster dimpled in the center, with another piece of a similar width hammered down on its side at an acute angle, so that an oyster could be jammed snugly between the two wood plies as you got down and dirty with the shucking work. This, of course, is much sturdier and more secure than holding down the oyster with a tea towel.

As we tucked into the oysters, Jean-Claude purred with his usual oh-la-lahs.  Then he muttered the words “Le petit Jésus” while sipping the Roses de Jeanne, a blanc de noirs champagne from Côte de Val Vilaine, degorged on April 2016. 

Like a silly school kid who had the answer to a question the teacher had tossed to the class, I raised my hand in a moment of giddy excitement, going “Attend, attend!” Wait, wait, I know this “Le petit Jésus” line, and I just had to say it at the table, but not after I had paused, regrouped, and regathered those same words I had learned from my colleague in New York years before whenever she was savoring delicious, decadent chocolate.

Le petit Jésus en culotte de velours. Baby Jesus in velvet pants.

It’s just the kind of metaphor that can’t quite be explained, but gets at the very heart of gustatory pleasure, such as the one we were experiencing as the Boxing Day sun shone through the tall French windows, giving the oysters a radiant shimmer while warming our busy fingers.

Petit Jésus was in our midst too, thanks to a cone of Beurre Bordier, butter from Normandy by a butter and cheese artisan, Jean-Yves Bordier. Also a 1986 Gironde that made its appearance after Jean-Claude de-robed it of the several sheets of newspaper he had wrapped it in, revealing a scruffy, moldy neck and a yellowed label: Chateau de La Dauphine, Fronsac.

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And then, for dessert a tarte au citron meringuée, piped in a way I’ve never seen before with a St.Honore piping tip, a wheel of meringue petals encircling a slice of lemon, mimicking a daisy. The lemon curd was unabashedly tart, but balanced by the sweetness of the meringue. And with just the right touch of brulée on the meringue, burnt but not too much, the semi-foamy meringue gave a textural thrill, a delicate crisp, and a feminine counterpoint to the bite of the robust yet not-too-thick tart shell.

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We walked our lunch away weaving down from home at Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth down towards the garden of Palais Royal via my gallery and my rue:

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At Gallérie Vivienne, we stopped for tea at Le Grand Colbert, a bistro as Parisian as can be, with its warm yellow lights, high-ceilinged interior, and aproned wait staff, friendly but distant. While chatting and poking our spoons into a devilishly rich Chantilly that came with Jean-Claude’s hot chocolate, F mutters, “Oh, there’s Pierre!” and stands up to say hello. A rotund man approaches our table.

This is not just any Pierre, but the king of pastry, Pierre Hermé. After all of us shake hands with him, he turns momentarily down to the floor, his eyes unsure where to look, then he winks at nothing in particular.

The maestro, as it turns out, is shy.

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