Some say that the only way to serve oysters is fresh from the shell. But Hélène Darroze, newly installed at the Connaught in London, brings the product of her homeland to life with an array of other ingredients. Michael Raffael reports
Hélène Darroze describes her signature oyster and caviar appetiser as the best-balanced dish she has invented. Served like a cocktail in a Martini glass it looks simple and pretty. Its full French title: "Tartare d'huîtres spéciales Gillardeau No2 pris dans une gelée de caviar d'Aquitaine, fine crème de haricots maïs du Béarn pour napper le tout" hints at something more complex, however. Reduced to its component parts, the dish has few technical challenges - it's certainly not molecular gastronomy. The skill lies in sourcing raw materials and knowing how to combine them.
Key ingredients have a regional provenance. Oysters, top-grade Marennes, come from the south-west coast between the Loire and Gironde rivers. Aquitaine caviar is taken from farmed French sturgeon. The unique "maize beans", a heritage variety, twine around stalks of corn.
Caviar d'Aquitaine in a black jelly, Gillardeau oyster tartare, velouté of haricots maïs from Bearn poured over the top
Aquitaine caviar Rearing sturgeon for their caviar is a relatively new industry in France. A British aquaculture scientist, Dr Alan Jones, pioneered sturgeon farming in the 1990s. The fish had been fished in the south-west French river estuaries in the early part of the century, but became virtually extinct. Acipenser baerii, the farmed species, introduced from Russia, differs from the better-known Beluga, Sevruga and Oscietra. It's also unlike the indigenous Sturio, a very rare, protected species.
France already produces several tonnes of this caviar each year. Eggs come from five- to seven-year-old fish and are sieved and salted. Berries have a diameter of about 3mm and a charcoal colour.
Haricots de mais In size they resemble the large haricot beans, Tarbais, essential to the making of a good cassoulet, but to look at they are flatter. Basque explorers first brought them back from Mexico in the 16th century and they have survived in pockets of Béarn to this day. At the moment there is a regional initiative to obtain an AOC for the variety. The beans grow in symbiosis with corn, twining up the stalks to a height of more than two metres. Harvested in September, they can be eaten fresh, but most are dried, and have fine skins and a creamy texture.
Planning and preparation At the Connaught the dish features on both the à la carte and dégustation menus. For the latter, up to 10 smaller portions are part-prepared in advance and finished to order. For the former, the dish, aside from the basic preparation of the jelly is made from scratch.
Opening the oysters The Gillardeau Spéciale oysters weigh more than 80g each. They should be tightly shut and smell of fresh algae.
Put a cloth or tea towel in the palm of the hand.
Lay an oyster on it, rounded side down.
Slide a stiff-bladed knife, or oyster knife, between the shells, along the straighter edge (2).
Prise open the top shell (3).
Use a knife to loosen the oyster flesh from the bottom shell.
Empty the oyster and its juices into a bowl.
Note: three oysters will make a single à la carte portion as in the picture, but a batch may number several dozen.
Filtering the oyster juices
It's essential to remove any traces of shell.
Strain the juices rendered by the oysters through a fine sieve, three or four times.
Each time you pass the liquid through the sieve, pass it over the oysters so it has a rinsing effect (4).
After the final rinse, strain off the juices and reserve them.
Oyster and caviar jelly - for about 20 dégustation menu servings
Controlling a consistent taste and texture is easier with a larger batch size, and this quantity would be enough for a day's service. The jelly should be lightly set but if it is kept beyond a day and a half it will start to toughen.
Note: the jelly is dark grey rather than black as the menu implies.
Ingredients 400ml light fish stock, prepared without wine
3 leaves gelatine, soaked in water
100ml filtered oyster juices
50g pressed caviar
Heat 100ml of fish stock to simmering point. Squeeze out the water from the soaked gelatine and add it to the hot stock. Stir until it dissolves. Combine with the rest of the stock and the oyster juices.
Pass the pressed caviar through a fine sieve and blend it with 150ml of the unset jelly.
Allow 10-15g per portion.
When making up dégustation servings, the kitchen sets the jelly in a shallow layer on a tray (about 0.5cm deep) and cuts out rings to lay on the oyster tartare.
For an à la carte serving (see picture)
Place a small bowl over a larger bowl containing ice cubes.
Pour in about 50ml of unset jelly. Stir until it becomes syrupy and on the point of thickening (5). Use at once.
For an à la carte serving, dry three oysters on absorbent paper. Chop them with a very sharp knife that cuts rather than mashes the oysters until they form a mass (6).
Put this in a sieve for a few moments to drain again (7).
Season with 1/2tsp very fine shallot brunoise, 1tsp sherry vinegar and a small pinch of piment d'Espelette (Basque paprika or pimenton).
Taste to check whether salt is necessary.
Spoon the oyster tartare into a well-chilled martini glass and flatten to form a layer (8).
When the jelly is about to set, pour a layer - about 24ml (1.5tbs) - on the tartare (9). The Connaught has a blast chiller that finishes setting the jelly in three or four minutes.
Lay a neat quenelle of Aquitaine caviar on the jelly (10). Garnish with a chive stem and a small twist of gold leaf (11).
In the restaurant
The glass is served on a slate and the waiter pours a jug of chilled velouté of haricots maïs on top, about 40-50ml, enough to just cover the caviar quenelle (12).
Veloute of haricots mais
(Makes about 1.5 litres)
1 onion, large brunoise
1 carrot, large brunoise
100g Bayonne ham, lardons
50g duck fat
500g (soaked weight) dried haricots maïs
1 litre chicken stock
500ml whipping cream
Sweat the onion, carrot and ham in duck fat until soft. Add the beans and stock. Bring to the boil. Add the bouquet garni, but don't season. Simmer until tender. Time will vary according to the freshness of the beans. Season now, and chill.
Remove the bouquet garni and about six tablespoons of beans. Liquidise the remainder with the liquid, add the cream, blend and chill. The texture should be like single cream. Check the seasoning again.
Sommelier Loïc Henriet recommends a dry Bergerac Cuvée des Conti 2007 to accompany the oysters and caviar. It's an inexpensive wine (about £50 per case from the producer) made with Muscadelle petits grains grapes by Luc de Conti on his 40-hectare estate at Ribagnac. The wine is generous, fruity and with a touch of bitterness.
Hélène Darroze's arrival at the refurbished Connaught this summer comes within months of her mentor Alain Ducasse's attachment to another top London hotel, the Dorchester.
"When I first opened my restaurant in Paris, I promised myself that I would never take on another," she confesses. "Now I think it's a sign of my maturity that I've been able to change my mind."
Her father, chef-patron of a Relais & Château hotel near Armagnac, found her a job at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo's Louis XV restaurant in 1992, after she had completed her business studies degree in Bordeaux. There she washed salads before doffing her whites to help Ducasse with the office work. He was totally immersed in the cooking, she recalls: "He has three powerful sides: the man, the chef and the businessman, but it's the chef part that will always dominate."
On Ducasse's advice, Darroze switched from a white-collar profession to cooking. Returning to the family hotel, she cooked alongside her father, and eventually ran the kitchen there before closing the family's hotel and opening her own restaurant in Paris.
The most important culinary lesson she drew from her time with Ducasse was a perfectionist's obsession about the choice of raw materials.
Technique, she admits, has always fascinated her less than it does many of her contemporaries: "I'm guided by my feelings, memories, intuitions, whatever triggers an emotion." Once she has had an idea for a dish, she trusts her own judgement to develop it and refine it without involving her team.
At the Connaught, her menu echoes its two-star Parisian counterpart. She uses the same suppliers from south-west France for key ingredients, such as the beans, oysters, Aquitaine caviar, piment d'Espelette and duck fat that figure in her Masterclass speciality. She's not neglecting British produce, though. "The beef here is outstanding, and I've been amazed by the quality of seafood, especially the Scottish shellfish."
Her kitchen team blends elements from her Parisian operation with the hotel's existing staff. Maybourne, the owners, kept them on during the closure period, moving them to its other hotels, the Berkeley and Claridge's.
Darroze is spending two weeks each month in London, has a flat here and a nanny for her one-year-old daughter. So Raphael François, who has worked for three years as her Paris head chef, is in charge. He says that he wants to run a calm ship: "I was brought up in the old school myself and got plenty of kicks on the ankles, but that's in the past and the younger generation shouldn't have to tolerate it."
What both he and his employer have accepted are the UK hours. In France the Government imposed a 35-hour week tariff on employees and most restaurants there conform to it. Darroze doesn't mind London timings: "I arrive first thing in the morning and leave at the end of service. If I see my daughter for an hour in the afternoon then I'm lucky."
http://www.lisabarber.co.uk/" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Photographs by Lisa Barber