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Oh for an Oyster

The strong, sweet, flinty taste of an oyster is at its best in winter.

I can clearly remember one of my finest oyster moments, and I have had a few of them; I was at Bibendum restaurant on the Fulham Road in London, early in the morning, at the crustacea stall just inside the entrance to the oyster bar. I had selected a mixed half-dozen of Irish, Colchester and French Belon oysters, and I stood outside, the rush-hour traffic whizzing by, squeezing a little lemon juice over my freshly shucked little gems and sliding them deliciously into my mouth.

All sounds around me stopped, so glorious was my rapture. I know I am not alone in this kind of solitary enjoyment of indulgent pleasure. Several years ago while working the lunch shift at Brasserie Flipp, an order came into the restaurant for a single, independent diner.

The docket read "1 x 10 dozen oysters, one dozen at a time". I remember telling the waiter not to be so bloody ridiculous and to go back and check the order, which he did, only to return and confirm the request. We duly sent out the oysters, as requested, slowly across an afternoon. I personally delivered the final 10th dozen to the guest. I was curious to know why he had ordered so many. His reply was that he had been away from New Zealand for 10 years, and that he had promised himself that he would eat a dozen Bluff oysters for every year he had been away, so great was his passion for the bivalve. It's a passion I understand.

Whereas the dredged Bluff oyster is available mainly through the winter months, the farmed rock oyster is available year-round. The rock oyster does suffer somewhat from oyster snobbery, which is unfortunate, as there is nothing wrong with it.

Both have a strong, sweet, flinty taste of the sea, and both should ideally be shucked open to order, retaining the precious "liquor". They can be hard to obtain still in the shell, but are worth the search. My favourite way to eat oysters is raw, but I do not dismiss the idea of cooking them - battered and fried is not the sacrilegious act many believe it to be, as they can remain succulent, all crisp and golden. Finally, what to drink with your oysters? Just about anything will do.

Oysters Rockefeller are supposedly so named because they "are as rich as Rockefeller himself". The dish was created at Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans.

OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER

250g unsalted butter

1 bunch of spring onions

1 rib of celery, chopped

1 large bunch of spinach leaves (or 750g frozen leaf spinach, defrosted and drained)

2 tbsp parsley, chopped

1 tbsp tarragon, chopped

1 tsp Tabasco sauce

30ml Pernod

salt, to taste

1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs

24 rock oysters, still in the shell

1 cup of rock salt

Preheat the oven to 200?C. In a deep pan melt the butter on a medium heat. Chop the spring onions and gently cook with the celery in the butter until soft, then add the spinach leaves, parsley and tarragon. Cook until the spinach is just wilted and still a bright, fresh green colour. Purée the mixture in a blender until smooth. Add the Tabasco, Pernod, salt and breadcrumbs. Cover each oyster with a mound of the spinach purée, pressing it down and around the oysters. Make a bed of rock salt on a flat baking sheet and press the oysters down into it. This will hold the oysters upright. Bake in the oven for 6-8 minutes and serve immediately. Serves 4.

I love the contrast in textures and flavours in this dish, the creamy oysters with the crunch of the apple, salty against sweet.

OYSTERS WITH AN APPLE AND FENNEL SLAW

DRESSING

1 fennel bulb, chopped

1 tbsp unsalted butter

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 apple, juiced

1 tbsp grain mustard

2 tsp cider vinegar

2 tbsp olive oil

1 fennel bulb, washed and trimmed

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tbsp fennel fronds, chopped

2 apples

12 oysters, chilled (I used rock)

Make the dressing first. Preheat the oven to 180?C. Place the chopped fennel on a roasting tray with the butter and season lightly with the salt and pepper. Cover the tray with tinfoil and roast until the fennel is tender, about 30 minutes. Purée the fennel with the apple juice until smooth, then add the grain mustard, cider vinegar and olive oil and thoroughly blend together. Finely dice the apple and fennel and toss together with the fennel fronds. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Place mounds of the apple and fennel slaw mixture on each individual serving plate and top each pile with 3 oysters. Spoon the fennel and apple juice dressing over the oysters and around the plate and serve. Serves 4.

On Sundays my daughter Isabella and I go for a late afternoon walk on the beach with Lucy, the most annoying dog in the world. When we return from these chilly winter walks, Isabella has a hot bath and a hot chocolate with strawberry meringues floating on top, and I occasionally have a mug of this steaming oyster chowder.

QUICK OYSTER CHOWDER

2 tbsp unsalted butter

2 medium potatoes, peeled and finely chopped

1 leek, white only, washed and sliced

750ml chicken stock

1 cup of cream

24 oysters

chives, chopped to garnish

16 water crackers

Melt the butter in a deep pot and cook the potatoes and leek for 7-10 minutes, without colouring them. Pour in the chicken stock and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream and oysters. Purée the soup in a blender until smooth and season with salt and maybe a little fresh white pepper if you really like it. Pour into mugs or bowls and serve with water crackers on the side, to be dunked or crumbled into the soup as you drink it. A little extra butter dotted on the top of the soup is often appreciated. Serves 4.

These two dressings are perfect companions for raw oysters. It is great to serve them together, along with some halved lemons.

MIGNONETTE DRESSING

60ml white wine vinegar

60ml dry white wine

1 tbsp shallots or red onion, finely chopped

a little freshly ground black pepper

Mix all the ingredients together and spoon over the oysters, making sure a little of the shallots or onion go on each one.

Ponzu is a citrus and soy-based dressing that is distinctively sour and salty. It brings a bracing complexity to grilled meats but I think it is best used with chilled oysters.

PONZU DRESSING

80ml soy sauce

160ml rice wine vinegar

juice of one lemon

70ml water

1 tbsp bonito flakes (available at Asian markets)

Bring all the ingredients to a simmer for 2 minutes, then strain them through a fine sieve. Store in the refrigerator overnight before using. These dressings should be enough for at least 24 oysters and will keep for months in the fridge.