Valentine’s Day is upon us and you might want to impress, so here’s one way of going about it. And of course one of the most perceived romantic meals for Vday is Champagne and oysters.
Why? Well one reason is it is expensive and expectations increase in price around celebration days. Another reason is that oysters are considered an aphrodisiac and Champagne a very romantic libation (hats off to French marketing skills).
However, to me there is one significant justification why these two things pair so well together.
The Soils of Champagne
Starting with the soils of champagne, where the grapes to make the drink are grown. This region, east and slightly south of Paris, has very chalk rich mineral soils.
Once upon a time this area was fully submerged as a shallow sea. When earthquakes lifted it and caused it to dry up, the sea creatures became fossilised and deposited into the soil. Due to this, the area produces a very chalky minerality to whatever grows there, which, luckily for us all, is grapes. This is one reason why it is said Champagne and seafood go together well; they are both ‘from the sea.’
Also this region, although it is changing slightly with global warming, has a cool maritime climate. This helps to create a naturally high acidity in the wine produced. This acidity is needed to assist in cleansing your palate of the brine of the oyster. Then the bubbles work their magic by being the vibrancy to compliment the smoothness of the oyster on the palate. Yin/Yang.
As you are aware, there are many different types of sparkling wine produced across the planet, but for oysters you should really look to Champagne, or as a second option a sparkling wine grown on chalk soils as these give the pairing its best expression.
Further look out for sparkling wines produced in the same method as Champagne region sparkling wines. This method involves the wines resting ‘on the leys’, meaning a plug of yeast and sugar sits in the bottle with the wine while it develops. This will eventually lead to a taste of bread crust in the wine. Think Brioche or croissant crust, more French bread rather than any other sort.
How to eat an oyster Normandy style
A few, rather personal words with regards to the oyster themselves. Growing up, the only oyster eater I observed was probably Sean Connery as James Bond eating one straight out of the shell. Later in life TV showed me my chef hero Keith Floyd doing the same. Imagine my thrill, much later in life, being at the seafood market of Bayeux, France and offered by a local fish seller an oyster to try! So I became Sean/James/Keith and sucked it straight from its shell.
Immediately I thought nope, not for me. I couldn’t believe just what an unpleasant experience that was. I didn’t catch any taste, the sensation was just slippy slime and I felt totally let down by the whole lifetime build up to such an expected pleasure. The look on my face must have been a picture. I managed to not regurgitate, but only just.
Then I saw the fish seller smiling and shaking his head with typically Gallic gusto. “Non, non, non mon ami.” He then went on to inform me that in Normandy oysters are not eaten that way and if I would like to try again. I heard myself saying ‘oui’, while thinking it couldn’t be worse.
He took a sliced roundel of baguette and buttered it. Then he placed the oyster on top of the butter and then he sprinkled sea-salt on top of the oyster and handed it to me. Well what could I lose?
I bit it in half. My mouth instantly filled with, what I can only describe as, the taste of the sea. Absolutely beautiful, salt, crisp sharp flavour of fish, zinc, a strong flavour of brine and smoothness of butter, moist and totally repeatable. I finished off the oyster Normandaise with pleasure. I’ve not observed it anywhere, and the few chefs I am acquainted with haven’t heard it either, but there is was. Beautiful.
I ordered another and at this point he poured a glass of sparkling white wine, which was a champagne but nothing exceptional, just ‘table’ champagne. Again I ate and this time I washed it down with the bubbles. Even better!
This is a paring that works so very well. With the salinity and smoothness of the oyster combined with the umami addition of the butter all on the texture being provide with the bread, which adds it residual sweetness, then contrasted by the acidity and the biscuit/brioche edge of the bubbles. In one word, ‘Awesome’.
So for this Valentine’s Day, if you go ‘Normandy’ with your oysters and ensure that the bubbles are chalk/mineral soil origin and are made the way that the makers of the region of Champagne make theirs then I can assure you success.
And if this pairing also happens to end up working as a double aphrodisiac then I can only say you’re welcome.
Happy Valentines Day y’all, follow the Sommelier uk on twitter @thesommelieruk.