Two adjoining villas at Jard, on the Vendee Coast, owned by two French sisters, Marcelle and Suzanne.
People Who Do Not Appear
Lucette, wife of the Author, Suzanne and Marcelle.
People Who Appear
Jackie, son of Suzanne and his wife, Evelyn, and 36 Oysters.
This is the secret story of my 28, or perhaps I should say 36, oysters – it is secret because I have no wish to be pressurised into explaining the rationale of its denouement, and note I did not say, ‘explaining to the peasants’.
It started with the arrival of Jacky and Evelyn at chez Suzanne, Avenue du Plumat, Jard, on the evening of Saturday 2nd June 2001 for a one day visit. They did not come for the purpose of eating oysters, but twenty four hours is no more than twenty four hours and an important secondary reason – a deciding reason if you like – for a visit by any red blooded French male to Jard is to eat oysters if he can possibly fit it in. It is not fair to say Jard has no other attractions, but the oyster eating potential ranks high.
Accordingly Jacky settled into Suzanne’s house, then later on Saturday proposed we visit La Guitière on the Sunday morning to purchase oysters from chez Robin.
First thing on Sunday morning, however, he went to the Jard supermarket to acquire a special bottle of suitable white wine, and installed it in our refrigerator to ensure that it was entirely so.
The purchase and consumption of oysters as a lunch aperitif was seen from the start as posing a slightly tricky logistic problem, in that it did not form part of the planned menu of Marcelle, the lunch provider and a non-eater of oysters. The cunning way round this problem, though, was seen as scheduling the start of the chez Suzanne oyster ceremony at 12.15pm, three-quarters of an hour before the notified start of the official chez Marcelle lunch ceremony at 1.00pm sharp. Sharp was well known to mean sharp in dealing with Marcelle, and accordingly the timing had been carefully calculated.
So far, so good. Serried trays of oysters of all shapes and sizes were inspected and evaluated chez Robin, the requirement for the four persons involved was first assessed at 48 then reduced to 36 as a matter of self restraint, pleasantries were exchanged, and around 58 French francs were handed over by Jacky for the 36 carefully selected oysters plus one lemon. A stop was made in Talmont St Hilaire in order that Evelyn might purchase a loaf of special oyster bread, which she rapidly accomplished.
Return to chez Suzanne, production of special knife, slicing of lemon, start of efficient slaughter of oysters. Jacky explained his view (contrary to that of Bernard) that the water actually in an oyster on first opening should be drained away, being too salty, then the oyster stimulated to produce more water by judicious application of lemon juice. He demonstrated, and the chosen oyster obliged by hastily reacting as indicated. Start of oyster consumption; they were glutinous, fat and tasty, they went down well. Gastric juices started flowing, the oysters waited expectantly. All was on course; all played their appointed roles.
Then came an abrupt – a rude – interruption. It was confused and in French, but its English meaning was clear and its message was expressed in tones of utmost urgency. ‘Come at once. Lunch is ready on the table and Marcelle cannot wait. She needs to take her pills’ – ten I believe – ‘and must eat first.’ There followed a few more hastily opened and gulped oysters, but there was no gainsaying the timing of Marcelle’s pill consumption – in the order of things it had overriding priority.
Is not the French Health Service the most expensive – and hence the best – in the world? The oyster contingent abandoned its activity and obediently reported to Marcelle’s back door. The 28 surviving oysters were relegated to our refrigerator – only 8 had had the time to pass on to a better world. The gastric juices consoled themselves. The solution was simple. ‘We will have our oyster aperitif later – at tea time.’
There was a wait of 15 minutes or so on the cramped concrete space outside Marcelle’s back door – time to bring chairs and start feeling uncomfortably hot and thirsty in the sun. Lunch was, after the panic, not quite ready – just almost ready, but its participants were suitably lined up for action the instant it was declared available, with not a moment wasted; moreover the unauthorized oyster aperitif had been abandoned, consigned in fact to oblivion. The official aperitif was to be a plat de charcuterie avec Banuls. In due course this was produced, the artistry of the charcuterie arrangement admired, and its constituent elements devoured. The meal proceeded smoothly on schedule. Guinea fowl and other courses prepared lovingly and with much hobbling labour, followed and – washed down with appropriate wine – were consumed to refusal. Profuse thanks were expressed. French (and English) tummies bulged. Heads began to nod.
At 6.00pm, as the scheduled moment for the Jacky/Evelyn departure approached, it became clear there would be no time or appetite for a delayed oyster aperitif, let alone for consumption of the special accompanying wine and bread. Thus it came about that as he took his farewells Jacky sadly donated the 28 surviving oysters to those of us who were to remain in Jard. The survivors were granted a further cosy night of life – happy in our refrigerator.
Now we had a problem. Those of us who remained in Jard were Marcelle, a proven and emphatic non-oyster person, Lucette, a no-more-than-two oyster person, and me, a sadly schizophrenic person who likes the taste of oysters (and does not the law of the jungle govern earthly matters?) but empathises with them (for is not all life unique and full of pitiful striving?). The only candidate available to slay and devour at least 26 of Jacky’s oysters was me, and it would need to be done in a secret solitary state, slipped in between a succession of robust meals coming on a (virtual) conveyor belt from the direction of Marcelle. It was not impossible, for am not I a French-trained oyster slaughterman who well knows one end of an oyster knife from the other. But then …. alone …. and in secret?
I soon resolved that the oysters were to be liberated at low tide into rock pools on nearby Légère beach, and nobody (except Lucette) was to know. Better than to expire suffocated in a plastic bag. In those pools it was apparent they would not receive the loving care and attention to which they had been accustomed, but at least they might stand a chance of survival. After all, the relics of wild oyster shells adhering to the rocks did indicate this was oyster country, and in my memory bank was a long-ago picture of a young lady scoffing such wild oysters direct from the rock faces on this very beach.
My first visit to Légère with the 28 helpless oysters ensconced in my red rucksack proved abortive. Despite best available calculations the tide was about as high as it was likely to get; in other words the calculation was as far out of phase as it could possibly be. I had let them down, the oysters who had placed their trust in me – had placed their trust, that is, insofar as beings encased in stony darkness might be expected to conceptualise the direness of their positions. I believe, though, that lamellibranches, despite their odd configuration, do have central nervous systems and maybe they can use them.
The best I could offer them for the moment was a refreshing bath, probably not much appreciated because of its brevity, followed by another night’s hospitality in our refrigerator.
Next day, Tuesday, my friends – as they had now become – seemed fit and refreshed, coolly ready to face their new lives. All 29 of us set out for the beach at the re-calculated time. The re-calculation proved to be on target and the tide well out, but it was immediately apparent that there was an unexpected hurdle to be surmounted. Far out from the beach and evenly spread close to the surf line on the rocky foreshore were the sinister silhouettes of nine French collectors of fruits de mer, each dark against the sparkle of the ocean, each carrying a large white bucket and each prodding silently at the bladder wrack in the rock pools. What would my oysters make of them and – more to the immediate point – what would the collectors make of the unusual operation about to be performed by myself and my friends?
By judicious footwork and at the cost of two bootfuls of water, however, I placed myself in a useful gap which developed between the collectors, far enough away from neighbours on both sides that they could not observe that distribution rather than collection was in hand.
I gave each of my friends the best possible chance, placing it concealed from view, or casting it well out below low water level. I must confess that 28 secure hiding places took some finding.
Sadly I cannot believe, though, that in the long run all 28 will escape the meticulous prodding of the fruit de mer contingents, who will then need to conjure up a satisfactory theory to explain to themselves how plump cultured oysters came to have found a home on this particular well-scoured bit of French coast. A bit of French coast normally as near to being a man-made desert as any coast can get – a coast, in fact, so dangerous that even a medium sized limpet lives in daily fear for its life.
Let us grant, though, that it is probably of little avail for any organism to pine for a world as is not.