02 March 2007

To eat or not to eat... oysters

Last Saturday afternoon, Peter H. and I ended up driving down to the town of Levroux after a stop in Valençay, where we learned that the famous château there was closed for the winter season. In Levroux between rain showers, we got out of the car and took some pictures that I want to post here. Last June, I posted some other pictures taken inside the church at Levroux in this blog entry.

I also want to write a little about one of the realities of food in France, and specifically about oysters! Meanwhile, most of these pictures are ones I took in Levroux last Saturday.

View down a street toward the church in Levroux

Here's what I didn't write about our dinner at the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc: I was really sick on Monday and Tuesday. I recognized the symptoms; I've experienced them before. It was a classic case of food poisoning caused by eating a contaminated oyster. Or more than one.

Metalwork over a door at the Levroux church

This case of food poisoning was milder than the other two I have lived through after eating raw oysters. Maybe it's because the oysters at the Cheval Blanc were slightly cooked. They were the ones served in a creamy sauce that had been cooked not quite to boiling and then run under a broiler.

Googling around to see what it is about oysters that cause such bouts of illness, I've found that some oysters are contaminated with Vibrio bacteria. The two Vibrio species that can lay you low after you eat raw or undercooked seafood (especially oysters, it seems) that is contaminated are Vibrio parahæmolyticus and V. vulnificus. The two can cause the same malady in humans. The Vibrio bacteria is completely odorless, tasteless, and invisible.

The best known Vibrio species is V. choleræ — that should give you an idea of the kinds of symptoms I am talking about.

Peter ate the oysters at the Cheval Blanc too. He's back in California, and I haven't heard whether he was as ill as I was. I hope not, or his 48 hours in Paris might not have been so pleasant as anticipated.

Oysters chez nous on New Year's Eve, 2004

In French, this is called une intoxication but not even a college-age yahoo would enjoy this kind of intoxication. The bacteria incubate in your digestive tract for 24 to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms. In my case, it seems to take them about 36 hours to do their dirty work.

The first time this ever happened to me was on a trip to Dublin and Paris. It was November 1996. The software company I was working for in California had an office in Ireland that took care of getting our applications and manuals translated into numerous languages, and I was sent over there to help them with translations of the on-line help system text. On a Friday night at the end of my work week, I went out to dinner with an American colleague. He picked a top Dublin restaurant (expense accounts!) and I had oysters on the half-shell as part of my meal.

Light flooding into the Levroux church

The next day, I flew over to Paris to spend a few days there before returning to California. Seizing the opportunity, Walt got a good price on a San Francisco-to-Paris ticket and decided to fly over and spend a long weekend in Paris with me. (My, we were living hight on the hog back then!) We got tickets to see a concert at the Olympia theater that weekend, and we planned to enjoy meals in good restaurants.

The November weather in Paris was cold and windy, with rain and snow showers. Twenty-four hours after eating the oysters, we went to the Rôtisserie du Beaujolais, I remember, for dinner. This bistrot, across the river from Notre Dame cathedral, is owned by the same people who own La Tour d'Argent, one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in Paris. We figured it ought to be good.

A quiet place to sit and contemplate life

I don't remember what I ordered, but I do remember that I didn't have much appetite that night. Walt thought the food was very good, but I couldn't really eat much of mine. "It's just me," I told him. "I don't feel quite right." I blamed it on the cold, damp weather outside and the fact that it was very hot and crowded in the restaurant. I had spent an exhausting week in Dublin.

That said, I was the only person in the place who wasn't having a boisterous good time and enjoying the food and drink. Usually I have a pretty good appetite, as you might have surmised from reading this blog. I remember that even the wine tasted "off" that night.

Mother Mary, pray for me.

About midnight, we went back to the little apartment we had rented for four nights, near Invalides, and turned in for the night. I awoke at about 5:00 a.m. with that "uh-oh" feeling that announces you are about to spend an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. And I did — two or three hours.

When dawn broke at about 8:30, I was in pretty bad shape. I told Walt he needed to go to a pharmacy, tell the pharmacist what my symptoms were, and get me some medicine. I knew it was the oysters I had eaten in Dublin that had disagreed with me.

I wrote a note in French for Walt to take to the pharmacist. He could speak French with no trouble, but the terms he needed weren't ones he had ever really had to use before. His first challenge was to find a pharmacy open early on a Sunday morning. Luckily, there is always at least one open in each Paris neighborhood, even on Sundays and holidays — it's called the pharmacie de garde. All the pharmacies that are closed will have a sign in the window telling you the address of the one that is open.

Answered prayers

Walt came back some time later with some little black pills that the pharmacist had sold him. "I told the people in the pharmacy that you had eaten raw oysters in Ireland," he said. "They said, 'Now what possessed him to do that?'"

The upshot of it all was that we did go to our concert, a matinée, at the Olympia theatre that Sunday afternoon. I was weak, pale, and even trembling, but the black pills had given me some relief. I didn't eat anything at all that day, though. The little apartment we were staying in was kind of dark and dreary, so I wasn't in the brightest of moods.

I remember that even bread turned my stomach.

On Monday, we decided to go to an Italian restaurant, Le Vesuvio, at St-Germain-des-Prés for lunch. By then, I thought I would be able to eat some plain pasta and bread, and maybe a green salad. I was hungry. We sat down at the table and we ordered. After a bit, the waiter brought the food to the table. I looked at it and told Walt I would have to wait outside while he ate. The waiter was perplexed — Il y a un problème ? — but I explained that the food was fine. I just wasn't feeling well. I needed some fresh air, and I especially needed not to have food odors right under my nose at that precise moment.

I waited outside while Walt rushed through his meal and came out to join me. I didn't eat on Monday at all, I believe.

L'église Saint-Sylvain à Levroux

Tuesday was the windiest and rainiest day of our Paris stay. We were over at Châtelet when a sudden squall came up, with strong wind gusts and driving rain that suddenly turned into snow. Outdoor tables and signs were blowing over, people's umbrellas were being turned inside out, and it was damn cold. All around the city, flowerpots were blowing off people's balconies and flying like projectiles to the streets below.

We had to seek refuge. It was lunchtime. We ducked into the café called Le Sarah Bernhardt, which was packed with people. It was noisy and smoky, and the big plate-glass windows were all steamed up because of the icy weather outside. We got a table by the window and I remember rubbing off a circle of condensation so that I could see what was happening outside on the street.

A panel in a stained-glass window at Saint-Sylvain

It's funny how memories eleven years old can suddenly make you recall memories even older. I just thought of an incident in 1980 or so at the same spot, right in front of the Sarah Bernhardt café. I was driving my little old Renault 4L. It was dark, early on a winter evening, and there was a lot of traffic. The much bigger, newer car right next to me hit two pedestrians who were trying to cross the street there, in a crosswalk.

I saw it happen out of the corner of my eye. What I remember is two pairs of legs pointing up toward the sky. The pedestrians had literally been renversés — turned upside down. I didn't stop. I wonder if those people survived that accident.

Back to 1996. There we were at a table in a packed, noisy café at lunchtime. I needed sustenance. I ordered a bowl of soupe de légumes and for the first time in 72 hours was able to eat something. I'm sure I also had a glass of wine.

Stained glass at Levroux

That night we were invited to dinner by a friend who lived in the Marais, on rue Vieille-du-Temple. She had also invited two other people, one of them another woman who was part of the "crowd" I was friends with back in the 1970s, when I lived in Paris for five years.

The woman who invited us served me a plate of plain pasta for dinner, I think, while everyone else had pasta with a nice rich sauce. I had of course told her how sick I had been for several days. The dinner guest I didn't know — the other woman's boyfriend at the time, who was a policeman or detective and worked on the quai des Orfèvres — had brought a bottle of very old wine to have with dinner.

It was something like a 1969 Bordeaux. The two women insisted that I not drink any of it. "Your digestive system won't be able to handle such an old wine," they told me. They served me a small glass of a young, thin wine, and I had to make do with that. They made gentle fun of me for having had the mauvaise idée of eating raw oysters in Ireland ("of all places" was understood, I thought at first, but then it occurred to me that they meant "any place outside of France, where we care about the quality of food and know how to handle and serve it properly").

Oysters and champagne on New Year's Eve 2005

Well that's the story. The point is that, when you eat fresh food that is undercooked or raw, you are always taking a risk. It happened with spinach in the U.S. recently, and it has happened through time in France as in every other country on Earth. I'm not going to let it deter me.

This latest oyster illness was the third one I've had, and the mildest. Maybe I'm developing a resistance. The incident before this one was in March 2004, when I ate raw oysters in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the coast in Basque country, down near the Spanish border. Luckily, with the 36-hour waiting period, we were able to drive all the way back home to Saint-Aignan the next day before the illness seized me.

Let me hasten to say that I have eaten raw oysters in the U.S. and in France on innumerable occasions without suffering the slightest discomfort, much less illness. This past New Year's Eve, for example, at the party we were invited to by friends in Mesland. In a restaurant in Dieppe in Normandy last August, with friends. In May 2005 in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, a town on the Normandy coast renowned for its fine oysters. In Paris about a year ago, at the old restaurant called Au Pied de Cochon restaurant at Les Halles. Here at home, enjoying oysters that I buy at the Saturday market in Saint-Aignan and open myself.

I fondly remember eating oysters at the restaurant called Plouf in San Francisco, and especially one dinner Walt and I had there with our old friend CHM. And I remember a couple of weekend trips Walt and I took to Seattle, back in our West Coast days, during which we wandered from old-fashioned oyster bar to old-fashioned oyster bar afternoons and evenings to gorge ourselves on the salty bivalves, washed down with white wine.

The irony in all of this recent nastiness is that we have been planning all winter to drive up to the Mont-Saint-Michel for a feast of oysters and mussels and other seafood, as well as an afternoon and morning of picture-taking. We'll stay in a hotel on the Mont itself. The trip is scheduled for this coming Monday, which is my birthday.

Do you think I'll be able to eat oysters again so soon? Don't dare me.


  1. I bet it will be a few months before you want any more oysters. I think you will find something good to eat at MSM, maybe some fresh dover sole.

    Have a great trip and a good birthday.

  2. So sorry about the illness. Anthony Bourdain always said avoid the mussels. Sigh. I guess that's the risk you take when you're an adventurous eater. I'm sure the satisfaction and pleasure you receive most of the time is worth the occasional (but memorable, obviously!) illness.

    Take good care and enjoy your birthday! May you have many, many more!!!

  3. Yep, in mid-meal on Monday evening I felt nauseous and couldn't eat more than a single bit of my main course, a civet de biche. At least I had made it through a good terrine aux champignons before I felt bad. Within the hour, I felt chilled. I thought I was coming down with the flu so I dropped some aspirin and went to bed. The feeling of nausea remained with me through Thursday morning, but the other symptoms went away and I managed to have a great time in Paris and a good flight home. It wasn't until Friday morning, when I read this post, that I found that I had food poisoning!

  4. Peter, I had a temperature of 101º all day Monday. I had uncontrollable shivers for part of the day. It all tapered off on Tuesday, and by Wednesday my appetite started returning.

    Ginny and Evelyn, I've eaten oysters too many time with no bad consequences to stop now. It's hard to believe that poor people once had oysters as a major part of their diet. All the oysters were fished out of San Francisco Bay over a 100-year period after the Euro-Americans arrived in the area.

  5. Proust conjured up memories from eating a madeleine; for you it's oysters! I'm glad you're feeling better, and that you aren't too mad at the oysters.

  6. Hmm, Dr Francis says that you must not eat oysters in the coming weeks in case one of them is "infected", otherwise, you may develop a real allergy to oysters... So, "sois sage !"/be quiet !" Bises. Marie

  7. Ken,

    I am so enjoying your blog as I prepare for our next trip to France.

    This particular post about oysters really has me remembering.....I too got "ill" while travelling once.

    We are going to Brittany next June SPECIFICALLY to enjoy the oysters in Cancale....we have been there before and love the way it feels like you are in France (of course) and also New England (Where I spent all my summers as a kid/teen)

    But it wasn't oysters that got me that year. We spent the day in Cognac, and then we spent the night in Jarnac. Although I pride myself on having a so-so ability with the french language, I didn't realize then that the Hotel de Ville was not in fact a "hotel"...haha...we finally found the ONLY place in Jarnac to rent a room. It was actually a quite lovely inn, where you had the toilet down the hall....and a lovely restaurant downstairs.....with "devilled" eggs that were the cause of my extreme downfall for the next 24 hours...

    Dear husband enjoyed good cognac with local innkeeper while I was upstairs....not feeling "well"...haha....

    NOT the night to have to share the "facilities" with others...ick.

    So, sorry Ken to share this with you....I am enjoying the memories your blog has given me.

    P.S. We did drive down into
    Spain the next day and I was A-O-K by 9 PM...had a lovely dinner in the Pyrenees....



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