“I live absolutely like an oyster.” ― Gustave Flaubert
I grew up believing that you should never mix oysters and spirits. Restaurants used to have warnings on their menus and solemn-faced maitre d’s would admonish you if there was even a possibility that you had knocked back a couple of Sex on the Beaches before ordering half a dozen of their finest natives oysters. Apparently it’s a load of nonsense…But I didn’t know that until I was invited to a Remy Martin Cognac masterclass and oyster roast celebrating London Oyster Week. Cocktails, followed by an informal gathering in the courtyard at the classic St James restaurant Boulestin with copious amounts of delicious barbecued oysters! What’s not to like? We were being guided down this decadent path by Katy aka The Oyster Lady and Remy Martin Brand Ambassador Jack Charlton who explained that the cognac house had been in the same family for nine generations. Founded in 1724 it’s the only cognac house still rooted in the Cognac region. The founder Remy Martin was a winemaker distilling Eau de Vie as a sideline. A few generations later his great-grandson created the iconic brand with its classic centaur logo. Cognac has an AOC protected status and has to be a distilled brandy from the Cognac region using uni blanc grape juice. Picked from September to October it has a high acidity and is slow-pressed so not to damage the nutrients. Adding yeast creates an acidic low alcohol white wine which is put into a copper kettle, heated up and then distilled twice with the yeast not filtered out, leaving the resultant clear Eau de Vie ‘on the lees’. At 78% alcohol the liquid is placed into large-grained breathable new oak wooden barrels for a minimum of 2 years, then topped up with younger Eau de Vie to make up volume and alcohol level as it evaporates. 2 year old cognac is marketed as VS and four year old as VSOP – very special old pale – a drink I became very familiar with as a student…After our lesson we moved on to the tasting, starting off with the smooth, velvety flavour of Remy 1838 Cognac with its notes of honeysuckle, figs, spices, cinnamon and nutmeg. We drank it mixed with ginger ale creating an unexpectedly refreshing long cocktail showing the versatility of brandy and is the sort of drink that could kickstart a cognac revival. We moved on to Remy Martin XO Extra Old which made its debut in 1981. It’s a blend of 10-30 year old Eau de Vies with over 100 of them in each bottle. With dried flowers on the nose and a longer finish than the 1838 its a complex mix of flavours – think 36 month Parmesan and nuts. Next up was Katy, The Oyster Lady. After an intriguing oyster experience on the coast of France during a family holiday, 12 year old Katy was hooked and since then, her life has revolved somewhat around this beautiful bivalve. Katy has been unofficially campaigning for oyster culture for the last decade or so and this has meant appearing at top food festivals around the country, teaching masterclasses, specialist oyster catering, talks, chef demos, opinion pieces, consultancy, media appearances and more.
More often found shucking and oystering at ‘the coal face’ than online – having worked on oyster farms and set up seafood bars and oyster festivals -her website is a showcase for a lifetime of #oysterlove. She showed us the best way to shuck and explained how the merroir is like terroir but for the sea. We learnt that oysters used to be the main protein source for the urban poor and then we set about scoffing loads of Colchester rock oysters. Rocks are originally from Japan and can be farmed year around unlike natives which can’t be fished in breeding season. Apparently, oysters discharge their sperm and egg into the seawater using echo location as a bivalve Tinder to meet. The oyster shell shows its age and they are should be eaten at between 2/3 years. If you are lucky enough to find a pearl in your oyster it is apparently a build-up of calcium in the shell to surround any sand which gets in and is an irritant. Katy told us that when you eat an oyster to begin by sniffing it, then sip the liquor and finally give it a good chew. The merroir which is affected by the water column, flow of tide and the influence of the land, gives it a local characteristic. Katy’s next move was to appear with trays of barbecued oysters. Oyster Bacchanale is a wonderful dish that she created with the sauce showing Trinidadian influences. It was simultaneously spicy, savoury, salty and sweetened with demerara sugar. The good news is that the oyster’s nutritional value is not lost when cooked. This was a wonderful event perfectly hosted at Boulestin; it was great to see how flexible Remy Martin is and Brandy and Ginger is now firmly on my summer drinking list! As for the oysters, I’m going to continue eating them both hot and cold but now I can safely consume them with a brandy cocktail.