Before I met my French boyfriend and his family, my culinary repertoire was sadly devoid of small sea creatures. Sure, I might occasionally have ordered mussels when out to dinner, but let’s face it—those mussels tasted only of what they were sauced with. I had never tried a clam or oyster, nor did I particularly care to. Scallops made me cringe. I was also fairly certain that sardines and anchovies were probably the
But my shellfish ignorance was not to last. When I moved to Paris three years ago, my boyfriend and I started making regular excursions to his familial home in Angoulins sur Mer, a fishing village nestled into the western coast of France, famous for its oysters and mussels. A few miles out to sea, Île de Ré is the source of yet more fish, and some of the world’s best sea salt. The range and scope of what local fishermen pull from those waters has not ceased to impress me yet.
Lunch and dinner at my boyfriend’s house became a kind of regular adventure, and still is. His family favors multiple small courses over single, main dishes, so every meal becomes an opportunity to sample various things. Each new plate that emerges from the kitchen is a surprise, and since they buy much of their food from local vendors, it is a surprise that changes with the seasons. Eating at their table has demystified food in a way we often willfully obfuscate in the States—lettuces are dirty when plucked from the earth, fish come with scales and bones.
In the three years since my first visit to Angoulins sur Mer, I’ve tasted much that was once completely foreign to me. I’ve also learned to appreciate simplicity. For instance, I now know that a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf, and a measure of white wine help mussels taste most like themselves—clean and so slightly saline. I’ve learned that naturally harvested scallops are much smaller than their American counterparts, and are best served still attached to their ruched shells by a comma of coral roe. Sardines, bright silver and as long as your hand, are best in the summer when you can eat them outdoors under an arbor, simply grilled and doused in lemon juice. Nothing but practice makes removing their tiny bones any easier.
In the regions around Angoulins sur Mer, there is a strong tradition of mixing seafood with salty butter. This is due to the proximity to Île de Ré, where they favor butter palpably salted with flecks of gros sel (large-crystal sea salt). I’ll never forget the first time a platter of tiny rose-colored shrimp was placed in front of me one day at lunch. I watched my boyfriend pull off a head and flick away the shrimp’s soft shell in one stroke. He sucked the brackish head juice before placing what remained of the shrimp onto a heavily buttered slice of brown bread.
Now that we live in New York, it is nearly impossible to find anything like the variety of seafood we enjoy when in Angoulins sur Mer. Luckily, you can buy very good quality sardines in a can, which I do every time we visit France. American supermarkets have started catching on to this fact, and it is possible to find good sardines here too, often imported from Spain or Portugal. Canned sardines are tasty served simply on buttered toast, but it’s worth the extra few minutes to make your own sardine butter. I mix American butter with chunky flakes of gros sel from Île de Ré (also now available in fine supermarkets and specialty stores online), so that, even in New York, my boyfriend and I can enjoy a taste of his home.
SARDINE BUTTER RECIPE
Serves about 6 people
1 ¼ sticks/10 tbsp salted butter, slightly softened (If you can find butter with actual crystals of salt, great; otherwise, mix in a pinch of gros sel or, failing that, the finer fleur de sel.)
1 can good-quality sardines, packed in oil
juice of ½ a lemon
about a tbsp minced chives
freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the softened butter in a medium bowl. Drain the sardines, and add them to the bowl. Use a fork to mash the butter and the sardines together. Have fun!
2. After a minute, add the lemon juice. Keep mashing until incorporated. At the last minute, add the chives, and some black pepper.
3. Move the butter to a ramekin, or roll it in plastic to form a log. Refrigerate it for at least an hour or so.
4. Serve the sardine butter with toast.
About the author: Cristina Sciarra is a writer, a photographer, and a culinary enthusiast. In her spare time, she travels and creates recipes for her website, theroamingkitchen.net. Also see her Q&A with a salt harvester from Île de Ré, France.