Steve Smith’s poached Jersey oysters don’t just taste good on the island. Michael Raffael reports on how Smith’s Bohemia restaurant makes the most of the local catch, and how the dish can be replicated inland
Two myths: “Never eat oysters in a month without an ‘R’”; and “Beware! Oysters can cause food poisoning.” Neither one stands up to close scrutiny.
It’s true that some people may be intolerant to the chemicals that can build up in an oyster’s system. However, the molluscs are UV-treated to destroy harmful bacteria, so food poisoning should never be an issue.
The seasonal aspect is more complex. Wild oysters breed in summer, during which they lose condition to the point of becoming inedible. Farmed oysters may breed too. However, oyster farmers will grow sexually inactive ones that never spawn. Technically, these triploid oysters have an extra chromosome that renders them sterile. This is true of the Pacific oyster, Gigas, but the rarer, wild native oysters will never appear on summer menus.
Purists may argue that the temperature of the water affects taste, and that winter oysters taste crisper. This may have a hint of myth about it too, though. Steve Smith at Bohemia in St Helier, Jersey, hasn’t noticed any difference. He does feel that those he buys (the island has some of the largest tidal ranges in the world – up to 12 metres) are firmer, tastier oysters than those he handled while he was cheffing in Melbourne, Australia.
The Bohemia kitchen starts fresh every day. Shucking oysters, preparing the poaching emulsion and the velouté are part of the mise en place. The oyster mayonnaise and tapioca are finished once these have been made. The cucumber that has been pressed for 24 hours is finished ahead of service.
Bohemia has menus ranging from a £19.95 Saturday set lunch to an 11-course prestige menu for £85. These change according tothe market. The poached oyster dish couldappear on any of the tasting menus, including the £75 ‘Pescatarian’ one. No 1 oysters, weighing up to 150g, cost between 40p and50p wholesale. The cost price for the finished dish should be less than £2.
Opening large oysters
When working with large oysters that are too big to fit snugly in the palm of the hand, start by laying them on a cloth on the worksurface with another cloth on top (1). The curved shell should be underneath.
Insert the oyster knifepoint as close to the hinge as possible. Work it in to a depth of about 2cm.
Once the knife is in, pick up the oyster so the rounded shell sits in the flat of the hand. Twist the knife downwards and inwards to loosen the two shells and separate them at the hinge.
The meat is attached to the top shell by an adductor muscle (2). Move the blade along the top (flat) shell and loosen the oyster from it without cutting into the fleshy part.
At this point the oyster and oyster juices will sit in the rounded shell as though in a cup. Discard the flat shell (3).
Washing oysters and clarifying the juices
As you open each muscle, empty the juices into a bowl (4). Expect about 200ml juice from 10-12 large oysters. Pass the juice through the finest sieve and reserve.
Rinse the oysters in the juice to remove any grit or traces of shell. Take the oysters out of the liquid and reserve.
Sieve the juice again and store for the sauce, the poaching emulsion and the oyster mayonnaise – about 350ml in all (5).
Preparing oyster velouté
This is halfway between a sauce mousseuse and a concentrated foam.
- 60g finely diced shallots
- 100ml Noilly Prat
- 100g oyster juices
- 120g fresh oysters
- 200ml double cream
- 200ml crème fraîche
- 40ml Chardonnay vinegar
- Lemon juice and salt to taste
Put the shallots and Noilly Prat in a medium-sized (2l) pan. Reduce by half over a gentle heat so that the shallots become transparent (6).
Add half the oyster juices and half the oysters (7). Bring back to the boil and reduce by about a quarter.
Add the double cream (7) and crème fraîche. Bring back to the boil, take off the heat and blend (8). Return to the pan, add the rest of the oyster juices and oysters, return to the boil and take off the heat. Add the Chardonnay vinegar. Blend in a Thermomix or Vita-prep (9). Pass the sauce through a fine sieve (10).
Taste and add lemon juice and salt as necessary to obtain a rich but slightly acidulated sauce. Keep at 65°C throughout service.
Oyster poaching emulsion
This serves as a poaching liquor. During service the raw oysters are heated through in it. It produces enough for at least 16 A-grade oysters.
- 200ml fizzy Champagne
- 200ml oyster juices
- 50g seaweed butter
Put the ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil and emulsify lightly with a hand blender. Reserve at 65°C.
Poached Royal Bay oysters, oyster velouté, cucumber
- 1 recipe oyster poaching emulsion at 65°C
- 16 No. 1 oysters
- 4 pressed cucumber strips
- 150g (approx) oyster mayonnaise
- 8tsp Keta caviar or French caviar
- 250g tapioca (see recipe)
- 1 recipe oyster velouté
- Fennel leaves and a cucumber flower
Put the oysters into the poaching emulsion and allow to heat through at the controlled temperature.
To plate each bowl (like a Spanish cazuela), cut a strip of cucumber into two ribbons. Arrange one in the base of a soup bowl to form an ‘S’.
Pipe three small blobs of mayonnaise on the cucumber. Spoon a little caviar between them, then spoon quenelle of tapioca, one either side of the cucumber.
Drain the oysters and place one on either side of the cucumber to balance the tapioca.
Use a hand-blender to froth the velouté. Spoon about three tablespoons over the oysters on either side of the cucumber. Finish with fennel leaves and a cucumber flower.
Steve Smith says left-handed people find opening oysters easier.
Some chefs leave an oyster on the side of the range for a minute or two before opening it.
Oysters are available all year, because they can be bred as drones, ie sexually inactive.
“Before every service, my head chef and I both taste every sauce,” says Bohemia’s Steve Smith. “On any day our respective palates may change or be slightly off, and this way we can be sure that the flavour is spot on.”
Only a handful of top chefs have the educated taste buds that can pick a good from an exciting flavour and Smith is one of them. A competent professional with technical ability could reproduce his oyster velouté with accuracy. The squeeze of lemon juice and pinch of salt that may vary day to day is what gives it extra punch.
He moved to Bohemia in St Helier, Jersey, two years ago, taking over from Shaun Rankin when he opened Ormer. Now 40, Smith has a string of Michelin-star accolades to his name. The Mill at Gordleton in the New Forest earned him his first, then Holbeck Ghyll in the Lake District and, following a spell in Australia, he won another at the Devonshire Arms in Yorkshire.
His spell in Melbourne, he says, gave his cooking an extra edge: “Every dish needed to pack a punch; needed to be vibrant.” But Jersey, he feels, suits his temperament: “You have to trust yourself and cook what you are happy with.” He has also set his sights on a second Michelin star.
Jersey Oyster Company www.jerseyoyster.com
Pressed cucumber strips
Peel and trim a cucumber. Shape it to form a rectangular block. Carve four ribbons off it that are 15cm long and about 4cm wide. There should be no seeds. Lay them alongside each other in a vacuum pouch with a small sprig of fennel and vacuum under maximum pressure.
After 24 hours take them out of the bag and put them in a second bag with 1tbs Chardonnay vinegar, 1 heaped tsp chopped fennel and 1 heaped tsp finely diced shallots. Vacuum again for about an hour before service.
When an order for poached oysters comes through, take one strip of cucumber and split it lengthwise to divide into two portions.
Most seafood restaurants want to buy No 3 oysters that weigh 65g-85g because they will be served raw. The wholesale price will be about 35p-40p each. No 1 is the largest size and will cost a little more, but they are better suited to poaching because they will be plumper and easier to portion. A restaurant could serve a single poached oyster in its shell as a generous taster or two as a starter, which is what Bohemia does.
Poach an oyster in its juice to 62°C (in a water bath). Liquidise and add 25g to 125g mayonnaise prepared with a neutral oil and finish with Chardonnay vinegar. Fill a small disposable piping bag.
Tapioca with yuzu and oyster velouté
Boil 150g tapioca in water until tender. The time will vary with the brand and some tapiocas need pre-soaking. Drain and refresh. Stir in a brunoise of cucumber, shallot and diced fennel leaves to taste. Stir in enough oyster velouté to bind the tapioca and finish with 20ml of yuzu juice.
Get more tips from Steve Smith with his Jersey Royal ice-cream masterclass