Huître en gelée d’eau de mer (oyster in seawater aspic with shallots and  watercress)
Marc Meneau is (another) legendary French chef. For several decades, he ran a Michelin 3-star restaurant, L’Espérance de Saint-Père, close to the beautiful city of Vézelay in the North of Burgundy. I am not sure whether the restaurant is still in business, as it coped with some financial difficulties and had to file bankruptcy a few years ago. It was to be taken over by the Alain Ducasse Group, with Marc Meneau (76) as the chef, but so far this plan has apparently not been implemented… However, Marc Meneau’s legacy to the French cuisine is significant, such as his foie gras croquettes (cromesquis de foie gras) or his lobster with chanterelles (homard aux girolles). But his most famous creation is the oyster in its seawater aspic (huître en gelée d’eau de mer), with shallots and  watercress. Shallots are a great classic with oysters, and the pepperish watercress is perfect with them as they love pepper. You may have seen Marc Meneau talking about his oyster masterpiece in the Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode about Burgundy. Meneau compared his oyster recipe to the magnificent local Basilique of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay…

Meneau has developed an interesting cooking philosophy consisting in associating an ingredient from under the earth or the sea with an ingredient from above. Interesting, since during the middle age, all underground foods (roots) were considered linked to the devil while the above-the-ground food (cereals, birds…) were symbolizing heaven. It is easy to understand the analogy… and also Meneau’s mystical comparison of his oyster with the Basilique. Although in this particular case, oysters could fall in the “below” and the “above” categories, depending on the tide, and the watercress is quite hybrid too.

I have to say that I am a great fan of oysters. I was raised in a family tradition where luxurious food was not foie gras, caviar, or langouste, but oysters… Maybe because of among all those expensive foods, oysters were, and still are, I think, the cheapest ones… Not mentioning the fact that, unlike its three luxurious “colleagues”, the oyster is the only one that you can find in its natural state: foraging, then eating wild oysters, including eating them “on the rocks” when they were too difficult to remove, are some of my most moving food memories as a kid. And if I was eating them on a rock, my mom used to say that she loved them so much as she would eat them on a leprous’ head if need be!

No rock or “anything” else here, just a bed of watercress…


30 minutes
30 minutes
10 minutes

Ingredients 2 servings, i.e. 10 oysters in aspic

§  2 dozens of oysters*
§  1 shallots head (2 or 3 cloves)
§  1 sheet of gelatin and 1/2 tsp. of agar agar (or 2 sheets of gelatin)
§  1/2 cup of crème fraiche (kept in the fridge till the last moment)
§  1/2 glass of dry white wine (for instance Sancerre blanc or Muscadet)
§  1 handful of watercress for the stuffing
§  6 large watercress leaves (or 12 medium leaves)
§  Half lemon
§  Butter

* here, I used in fact 28 oysters, with the grocery store's "14 by a dozen" offer. But, unlike in France, where oysters are sold by standardized size (from 0, the biggest, to 5, the smallest size), I had a range different size oysters. If you can have big size oysters (#1 or 2 as per the French classification), you would need less oysters, something like 2 oysters to make 1 oyster in aspic. That said, when you have more oysters, small or big, you can collect more oyster water.

1.     Preparation of the oysters
§  First thing to do is to shuck the oysters. As you want to recuperate a maximum quantity of oyster water, shuck them above a bowl with a strainer, or better, a meat resting pan. Keep preciously the oyster water (called sea water by Meneau),
§  Select the 6 (or any other number) most beautiful oysters and the 6 largest shells. They are generally the same, but not always… and it may happen that you break 1 or 2 shells during the shucking process. Clean the selected shells, and reserve in the fridge the 6 beautiful + 18 remaining oysters. I advise you to store them on the meat resting pan as they will continue to render some water.

2.     Preparation of the filling
§  Chop finely the shallots, and sweat them rapidly in butter (no coloration), add 50% of the wine, let reduce, add the other 50%, let reduce till obtaining a syrup-like texture, and let cool down,
§  Chop roughly the watercress,
§  Take the 18 oysters and chop them roughly (depending on the size, 3 to 5 pieces per oyster)
§  Whip slightly the crème fraîche,
§  Mix the whole (shallots, watercress, oysters and cream) together,
§  Fill the 6 empty shells with this stuffing, at around 2/3 of their capacity,
§  Place a non-chopped “beautiful” oyster on top of the filling of each shell,
§  Squeeze “three” drops of lemon on each of the oysters, and cover them with either a large watercress leave, or if need be, with 2 smallest leaves. It should cover wholly the oyster, while leaving enough volume to pour the seawater jelly.

3.     Preparation of the aspic
§  Take the seawater, including the water rendered afterwards by the 6+18 shucked oysters,
§  Ideally, you need between 1.5 to 2.0 dl of water. If you don’t have enough (for instance if you use less oysters), complete with distillated water and sea coarse salt, in the proportion of 3 g of salt for 1 dl of distillated water,
§  Soak the sheet (or sheets, if you don’t use agar agar) of gelatin in cold water, for a minimum of 5 minutes
§  Put the seawater in a saucepan with the agar agar (if you use it) and put it to boiling, stirring it up to ensure the agar agar is diluted. As soon as it boils, keep out of the burner, and pour in a small bowl, and let it cool down a couple of minutes,
§  While the seawater is still warm, take the gelatin sheet out of the water, squeeze it to eliminate water, and mix it with the seawater.
§  Place the small bowl containing the seawater in a bigger bowl filled with water and ice, and rotate gently the small bowl so that the seawater runs on the wall directly in contact with ice. This should take a couple of minutes before the seawater starts to gel, while remaining still liquid.
§  Then, with no delay, pour it in each of the stuffed oyster shells that you would have taken out of the fridge and place as flat as possible (using coarse salt for instance) on a dish. The objective is to cover the whole watercress leaf (or leaves),
§  Let rest a couple of minutes so that the seawater finishes gelling. You can either eat them at this moment, or reserve them in the fridge,
§  I serve them on a bed of watercress, but any other options (sea salt, algae, ice…) is possible.


Basilique of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay