In Blighty, as I’ve had occasion to mention before, oysters have become a rich man’s delicacy, whereas in Dickens’ day they nourished the poor, collected at low tide in the Thames estuary. In Dorset, where my brother lives, they are almost impossible to find. One girl, working at the fishmonger’s counter in a large out-of-town Tesco’s, simply did not know what they were – one of the saddest moments in my life. Likewise, fresh seafood is very hard to come by in England, even in popular seaside resorts. The industrialisation of the fishing industry is to blame, I presume, but wherever one casts one’s aspersions, it is a tragic tale indeed.
In France, thankfully, the opposite is true, and the wonders of the deep are everywhere on offer at prices that suit all pockets.
If you were to stick a pin in the centre of a map of France, you wouldn’t be far from Loches – in other words, a long way from the sea. Nevertheless, Loches market, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, has always had two huge fishmongers’ stalls – one next to the other – with a cornucopia of affordable produce. Whoever invented the refrigerated truck, chapeau!
A week ago, a new venue opened, l’Oyster Bar in the rue Saint Antoine. In the summer months, this outlet was in the open air, in front of the florist’s beside the river Indre. It now has its own chic premises, with 18 seats inside and, when the weather’s fine, 12 on the terrace. This is all thanks to Vincent Houlier and Florent Gouverneur who have created a shellfish haven that is destined to be popular throughout the year – even in the months without an “r” in them, when the oysters are milky, and thus not to everyone’s taste.
We went there with old friend and antique dealer Frédérique Grego who lives next door, and the dining room even has a little barred window that looks directly into her garden.
Winkles were served as a little amuse-gueule, along with a little aioli, and we chose platters of Ile de Ré oysters, shrimp, whelks, langoustine, and half a crab (at a reasonable 23 euros a platter), accompanied by a pichet of Muscadet white wine. If you’re eating à la carte, there’s a choice of 9 different types of oysters from different French coastlines, French caviar from the Dordogne, and smoked fish from nearby Descartes, in addition to cheese and charcuterie platters.
The wine list was elaborated with the help of Jean-Christophe Laplanche of Les flaveurs de la terre, the best wine merchant in Loches and the most enthusiastic and eloquent oenologist I’ve ever met. The tableware is intriguing, including individual transparent lemon presses to produce the juice that stuns the oyster prior to ingestion.
We regularly eat seafood bought either at the market or at the supermarket, and the fare on offer at l’Oyster Bar was noticeably superior: very fresh, clean, plump and full of flavour. Having eaten at its US namesake, the famous Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, New York, I know which I prefer – Loches!
The bar is open 7 days a week and is sure to become a popular haunt for oyster maniacs such as ourselves. All Loches needs now is a proper Sushi bar, but maybe l’Oyster Bar will branch out in an easterly direction one day?