When you order oysters, whether by the half-dozen, the dozen, or some even more decadent number, it’s not uncommon for them to come with a slice of lemon or a little pot of shallots, finely chopped and suspended in vinegar. You might stick a fork into the lemon, to squeeze as much of its juice as possible over the glistening bivalves, or use a tiny teaspoon to ladle shallot bits onto their fronds and gills. But Joffrey Dubault, an oyster producer from the area around Bordeaux, France, wants these accoutrements gone—and for the oysters themselves to come ready-flavored, impregnated with whichever twiddly bits of flavor you might prefer.
For the past four years, as AFP reports, Dubault has been attempting to infuse his oysters with flavors other than “maritime.” At first, it was near-disastrous, with 90 percent of the stock cast out as inedible. “Now,” he told the paper, “I have a 90 percent success rate.” Dubault bought the oyster farm in 2013, initially selling some 40 tons a year—but found himself wondering how he could differentiate himself from the competition. Despite what the daily catch board might claim, for many, one oyster is much like another.
Then, at his market stall, he was struck by an idea: “Customers were always asking me if I might have a bit of lemon to sell them, to go with the oysters.” What if that fresh lemon scent were already hidden inside the shell? The resulting process, put simply, involves marinating the oysters in a tank of lemon extract-laced sea water for up to 12 hours. As the oysters pump the water through their gills, they are totally imbued with the flavor. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, Dubault said. There are a total of 16 steps, and if any go awry, “the result is failure.”
As of October, consumers can now buy shallot- and lemon-flavored oysters, alongside less traditional flavors like ginger, raspberry, or the sweet fortified wine, Muscatel. And more, even bolder options are in the pipeline. Dubault promises grapefruit and mirabelle plum flavors for next year, and both truffle and black pepper by next Christmas. It makes sense, he says, “Today, people eat flavored yoghurts, drink flavored water—so, why not oysters?” However, even Dubault has a limit to how adventurous his flavors get, and chocolate-flavored oysters will not be on the menu.
Most of his clients are located a far cry from France—Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic—with relatively little interest within France. But Debault remains optimistic about convincing these purists. And, given that the French eat some 150,000 tons of the shellfish every year, there are good reasons to make the effort with this pearl of the oyster market.
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