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On Martinis and Oysters

On Martinis and Oysters

A well-chilled Martini
catches the last rays of sunlight
on the Caribbean Sea


(photo courtesy RC Herman)

One of my favorite repasts in this entire wide and wonderful world lies in the magical coupling of two disparate entities, the perfect clarity of a fine gin Martini served alongside a plate of freshly shucked raw oysters. For me, this pairing always conveys the finest sentiments about relaxation and the enjoyment of food. Gin is readily available and although raw bars are harder to find these days, fresh oysters in the shell are often sold in the seafood section of many large American supermarket chains. Yet, although ready procurement makes them easy to pair, true perfection remains beguilingly elusive. As for those rare occasions when both come together in perfect harmony, the results are timeless and memorable, forming a new yardstick to measure and judge future pairings.

When it comes to Martinis, let me begin by saying I believe in the old adage that states, “Three are too many and one is not enough.” The first Martini is but an overture, just as the orchestra at an opera will first present instrumentally all the melodic themes that will soon be explored in detail and depth. The first Martini tells me that the houselights now flash and dim, that the time has come for me to take my seat, to prepare myself for the coming moments, a respite to savor and enjoy.

To relish such a moment, I embrace a Gin Martini served dry and up, well chilled, garnished with a twist, and set before me with a club soda or sparkling water back. Sounds simple and direct, and here is what it means to me.

Gin makes the quintessential Martini and I prefer the English dry gins bottled near 94 proof. Gin is a clear spirit made from grain, its distinctive ‘nose’ imparted by the juniper berries and other botanicals present during the distilling process. Beefeater makes a consistently fine Martini and I have no issue with the taste or quality of Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire. On occasion, depending on time and place, I might step up to an ultra-premium gin such as Magellan (with its beguiling blue color) or my personal favorite, Cadenhead's Old Raj.

I like my Martini dry and up, but I do not mean bone dry. I appreciate the synergy that a small amount of Vermouth brings to the finished cocktail, and consider a quarter-ounce about right. I prefer the drink briskly shaken with cracked ice and strained into a classic chilled stemmed cocktail glass; both glass and stem should be clear crystal with no hint of color.

As a garnish, I am partial to a twist of lemon and by that I mean the thin outer layer of yellow that contains the oil of the lemon, the zest, and not the thick gaudy slices found in most bars, pieces of old dull yellow fruit that tend to include the bitter white part of the rind, the albedo or pith. I also enjoy the traditional olives on a toothpick, but do not care much for their brine. Once, on the island of Nantucket, I ordered a dry Martini with a bay scallop for a garnish. Recently, I have rediscovered the taste of cocktail onions but a twist of lemon remains my favorite.

The final accompaniment, a club soda back, is as simple as it sounds; a medium sized rocks glass of club soda, with or without a twist, set on a coaster or napkin immediately behind the stemmed cocktail glass. I take pleasure in the occasional taste of a club soda as I savor a Martini, and enjoy the dryness found in the hint of limestone salts that most club sodas or naturally carbonated mineral waters usually contain.

It is only paradoxical then, that the clarity of a fine gin Martini should find its ultimate and most essential coupling in the labyrinthine complexity of the bivalve mollusk known as the oyster. The oyster is a conundrum, a living organism at once both singular yet manifold, pure sex, a place where male and female essence achieve the highest flowering available for the palate, a gastronomic fulfillment; all sea and brine and brass come together to create an epicurean moment so sublime and gratifying as to border on the transcendent.

Native peoples around the world have eaten oysters throughout the centuries, the veracity of that statement lies buried deep within the mounds of discarded oyster shells that the inhabitants of early settlements have left behind. The size, shape, color, and flavor of oysters vary in degree and kind from region to region: from the metallic slap of the European Belon to the melon-scented Pacific Kumamoto, from the big salty iron taste of a Moonstone to the smooth delicacy of a Penn Cove Select. It is the subtle variety and nuance of the oyster that is at once so compelling and beguiling.

I remember my first raw oysters, enjoyed on the Connecticut shore or in the small oyster bars of Boston, Newport, and Portland. In the 1990s, my home was in Atlanta and I patronized the local oyster bar, a chain restaurant called ‘Barnacles’ that served up fresh varieties from the Gulf of Mexico brought in by the boxful. Now that my residence is in California, I savor the sweet and tender taste of the Pacific Oyster, and all the piquant and provocative varieties of oyster that originate in the Pacific Rim.

Pollution and overfishing took its toll on many famous oyster beds, such as those in the Chesapeake Bay, and brought about the demise of numerous raw oyster bars that once served a loyal clientele with a selection of oysters taken exclusively from local waters. But the science of oyster farming has risen to the challenge and once rare or esoteric varieties of oysters are now cultivated alongside regional delicacies in many parts of the world. Neighborhoods once famous for the quality of their harvest have instituted local cleanup efforts in an attempt to restore devastated oyster beds to their former productive levels, and many seaside areas around the globe are taking a fresh look at the role of the lowly oyster in maintaining a healthy and productive coastal marine environment.

The cost, effort, and time associated with bringing a great tasting oyster to market may have all increased, but at least oysters are readily available and their long-term prognosis looks good.

I always appreciate the look of a dozen raw oysters sitting on the half-shell in their juice (the liquor of the oyster), the shells resting on a bed of ice with fresh lemon and the other common condiments (horseradish, cocktail and Tabasco sauces) close at hand. To sit down before a plate of raw oysters is an event I never take for granted; it is a moment to cherish and enjoy; something to be grateful for, a juncture in time that is wholly unique. I delight in dispatching them pure, sitting ice-cold in their own liquid, or served with a few drops of juice squeezed from a ripe lemon wedge and heightened with a touch of horseradish cocktail sauce.

When I dine on their fresh raw meat, I savor the taste and texture of each mollusk before lingering over the finish of the oyster, concentrating on how its taste endures and dances on the palate, then I bring the process to its natural climax with the clear crisp taste of an ice-cold gin Martini, and heaven meets the earth where it joins the sea.


Laudizen King
December, 2010