The other day, upon returning from a trip to the Pacific Northwest, we celebrated the thrill of things chilly. We had left town with one red, paunchy suitcase and we flew home with one red suitcase plus one well-insulated brown cardboard box. The suitcase trundled out first onto the luggage carousel, and then we waited intent, willing our box’s trim corners to be the next to shoulder through the black rubber fronds that concede you your baggage. We both held our breath a little, saying nothing, but dually fixed on the worry that our box might be broken open, its innards melting – or worse, that a savvy someone who lived behind those black rubber fronds was tucking into our frosty treasure chest.
We had bought oysters. Bought them, and ventured to travel with them. Traveling with oysters is the mollusk equivalent of egg-and-spoon racing – an attempt to carry a little of the crash and tumble of West coast waters back to the cement shores of the Delaware river. It is an attempt that seems amiably idiotic, loosely genial, yet it is also perverse in its squandering of location, obscene in its decadence. And it is a practice that is fully catered to by the Pike Place Market in Seattle. The fish stalls there brim with braggadocio – the fishmongers yell and toss huge, beautiful fish across counters to each other, catching the whim and wallet of the tourist. If you linger by a pile of shells, they will whip out a small knife and pry you open a clam or an oyster to taste. All the stalls assure you that they can pack their wares for travel, and some will even deliver the aquatic parcels to you at the airport, fully equipped to withstand up to 48 hours in transit; a Pike Place oyster could safely fly all the way around the world.
This is a curiously cosmopolitan end for an oyster, which otherwise lives its entire life anchored to one spot in the ocean. Is it because each oyster is housed in its own, hinged suitcase that they are suggestive of the portable? Or is it the horizon curve of an oyster’s shell, the rugged mountain terrain of its back, the inner seascape, that makes us want to palm and pocket it, like some primordial GPS device, then produce it glistening and triumphant, just in time for a far flung feast?
But maybe our urge to transport them has less to do with the creatures than with their medium. Raised in ice-cold waters, good only in the frosty months, we serve them on beds of ice - it is to ice that they truly belong. And the history of ice has always been – paradoxically for a substance that is the definition of stop-action – the history of transport. Before the invention of refrigeration, snow and ice were the most audacious cargo of all. Their travel and storage were costly folly for empires, aristocrats and their anxious mimics. Elizabeth David’s Harvest of the Cold Months is a history of the dazzle and excess of ice, and she details the fascination that runs from Medici banquet tables set with ice plates and goblets, to the child compelled to lick an icy pole. She tells the story of a commodity that, across its slow transit, tithed most of itself to summer suns, and of wealthy men who commandeered mountain snowcaps, transporting them to their estates and inverting them into their conical, sunken ice-houses. Nowadays a bag of ice is cheaply bought, but the glint of its melting, wasteful preciousness remains. Wedding planners order up ice statues of swans (a nice touch, given that the swan was the marital interloper between Leda and her husband King Tyndareus), while much-hyped Russian vodkas are served in metropolitan bars made entirely of ice, and ice hotels in Sweden and Canada, which melt away after each season, offer the ultimate getaway for those who prefer their pleasures cold, hard and short-lived.
Catching snowflakes on our tongues for the brief burn of their melting is something we don’t grow out of. So perhaps this is why we flew a pile of oysters across a continent to our friends. And why I eschewed the traditional accompaniment of mignonette in favour of something a little more frigid and crystalline. The tiny dice of shallot in mignonette has often struck me as a disturbingly crunchy interruption to the briny pause of the oyster. I wanted the consummate condiment - an acidic embellishment with no competing texture, something that would slide respectful but brazen into the nakedness of the oyster on the half shell. My solution: granita. Granita is that grainy version of sorbet – inversion, even, since the sorbet-maker is desperate to avoid the ice crystals that distinguish granita. Granita is flavoured ice that you’ve irritated by stirring and scraping or shaving until its shards are revealed. Just as the oyster’s outer garment is all craggy ruffle, the granita has a glorious rasp that bites, just before it melts luxuriously to an intensely flavoured liquid. I made three of them: a bright green cucumber lemon affair, a femme fatale made from white balsamic, and a chile, lime and mint ice spiked with a little fish sauce. Our oysters were of three kinds too: Bluepoints, Kumamoto and a larger, humbler oyster that didn’t even have a name. These last worried me as I opened them – they had hardly any liquor – but when we sat down to dine, they pleased us perfectly well. The Bluepoints and Kumamotos were sweet and sleek, the spoons of granita subsiding into their mix of flesh and liquid.
It has always struck me that the oyster is a creature of diversity – made up of the most pearlescent whites, but frilled with carbon black, some shadowed by dilutions of blue and green. It is muscle and organ and gill and we eat it all. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the oyster may change sex one or more times across its lifespan, occupying its sex distinctly at any given moment, but without commitment. When the Elizabethan Orlando spots the Muscovite who will break his heart, she is dressed in a costume that “disguises the sex,” made of “oyster-coloured velvet.” The two indeterminate young aristocrats are skating over the frozen Thames, at a Frost Fair. The scene beneath the ice forms a narrative of evolutionary motion baffled by stasis: “So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. Shoals of eels lay motionless in a trance, but whether their state was one of death or merely of suspended animation which the warmth would revive puzzled the philosophers.” The difference between boy and girl, life and death, the things we think have so much meaning – are suspended here, as immortal androgynes skate the surface of the frozen deep wrapped in oyster-coloured silks. Even age, and the fruits of the Fall, and filthy commerce, are immobilised to make possible Orlando and his lover’s gliding passage. “Near London Bridge, where the river had frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat was plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples. The old bumboat woman, who was carrying her fruit to market on the Surrey side, sat there in her plaids and farthingales with her lap full of apples for all the world as if she were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips hinted the truth.”
Ice is brutal, numbing, but its suspensions provide clarity. It kills and it preserves. It slows time down. I am more like an old bumboat woman with my skirts full of Eve’s fruit than I am like either the immortal Orlando or the timeless oyster. But I once swam off the coast of the Isle of Mull on a bitter January day. I swam and gasped until my limbs evaporated and I was nothing more than a beating, slowing heart. I felt the thump of myself. My silts and valves. The oyster has filtered freezing waters its whole life, existing in the frozen interstices of time and sex, anchored in the huge swell of the sea. As Eleanor Clark puts it in The Oysters of Locmariaquer, “there is a shock of freshness to it and intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes.”
The oyster has also sifted the tides of fashion and fortune, its own status shifting – sometimes the emblem of luxury and extravagance, it has also been the despised food of the workingman. Many have hailed it as the misshapen emblem of misery and seclusion: Charles Dickens makes the bivalve the analogue of that Christmas-party-pooper Ebenezer Scrooge who is, he tells us, as “Secret and solitary and self-contained as an oyster.” But Scrooge is our measure of change, our lesson in how the hardest heart can be melted – even if only by terror. Like Orlando, the tight oyster Scrooge catches hold of immortality: 'I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!' M.F.K.Fisher, in Consider the Oyster, pities the beast she biographies: “Life is hard, we say. An oyster’s life is worse. She lives motionless, soundless, her own cold ugly shape her only dissipation . . .” This oysterly inertia, this liquid dissipation in ossified ugliness, makes people uneasy. It is eerie, that quiver beneath the silent shell that reminds us of stubborn, shameful pleasure-taking. When Shakespeare sees the world in an oyster, it is the thief Pistol who speaks the line, threatening to take what he will: "Why, then the world's mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open." Pistol’s violence and vengeance remind us that the oyster is eaten alive.
But surely the most complete dissipation requires frolicking with that which is ugly and brutal? True bucolic pleasures incorporate the grotesque: they do not spurn it. This is why we see the world in an oyster, and serve it at our feasts. It is in the vile body that we find our revel, and in the sacrifice of it that we face ourselves. The oyster may be a dubious food, but we are a dubious animal and a relish for the oyster is a savouring of the elemental. Its minerality carries the trace of rock and sand upon which we precariously build our lives, and its salinity is of the seas we came from. A friend brought, to our oyster feast, icy Chablis pressed from grapes grown in French vineyards nourished by chalky soil made from age-old oyster shells. In that wine and those oysters, brought together across seasonal and geological stretches of time, and across continental and oceanic measures of distance, we tasted the friable press of ice-ages and their thaws, the pull of moons and tides, and the monstrous shudder of life. And we hoped that we will not – while suspecting that we will – come to say with Oscar Wilde, “the world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.”
SYLLABI: THREE GRANITAS
Chile, Lime and Mint Granita
Recipe from Le Colonial restaurant in San Francisco
2 cups water
2 mint sprigs
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon chile-garlic sauce (sambal olek)
Bring the water to a boil in a small pot and add the mint. Reduce heat and simmer until the liquid reduces by half. Remove from heat and add the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. Stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Discard the mint sprigs. Add the chile-garlic sauce and mix well.
Transfer the mixture to a stainless-steel or glass pan and place in the freezer. Whisk the mixture every 10 to 20 minutes and continue to freeze until the mixture is consistency of shaved ice, about 2 hours. Break up crystals and whisk before serving.
Cucumber Lemon Granita
2 large English cucumbers, peeled and seeded
1/4 cup water
3 teaspoons aquavit or Hendrick’s Gin
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
Coarsely chop cucumbers and purée in a blender with remaining ingredients in 2 batches until smooth. Taste and adjust flavours to your liking. Pour into an 8- to 9-inch baking pan.
Freeze, stirring and crushing lumps with a fork every hour, until evenly frozen, about 2-3 hours total. Scrape with a fork to lighten texture, crushing any lumps.
Serve immediately or freeze, covered, up to 3 days (rescrape to lighten texture again if necessary).
White Balsamic Granita
Dilute white balsamic by half with water and add a couple of drops of lemon juice. Freeze as above.