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The Freshest Shellfish

Shellfish lovers love nothing more than slurping bivalves right where they bought them on the street, preferably the dock. However, that’s a rare experience. Along the long coast of California where I live, the closest I’ve come to that style of eating coquillages, as the French call them, was at a restaurant about three blocks from the ocean in Pismo Beach.

Nothing wrong with that, but I would love to replicate the experience from years ago in a glorious setting in Cap d’Agde on the “other” French riviera, the coast of Languedoc southwest of Sète. Cap d’Agde is a slightly honky-tonk seaside town. We spotted a coquillages (shellfish) stand near the water where my buddy and I scratched our heads about these curious little boats in the harbor, like rowboats, with catapult-like devices on the sterns.

We couldn’t figure out what they were at the time. Later I learned these boats were for what has to be one of Languedoc’s strangest sports: joutes nautiques, water jousting. This involves two jousters armed with 9-foot-long lances and shields, and dressed in splendid costumes standing on protruding platforms (the “catapults”) to fight it out.

However, Cap d’Agde is most notable not for its naked shellfish, but for its naked people. It’s a nudist city, a clothing-optional summer town of 20,000 people. But the nudist part, known as the Quartier Naturiste, is set off from the town proper and that’s where, on a stroll down the promenade one evening, we came upon a shellfish lovers dream, a street coquillages stand.

Varied and tasty shellfish

This coquillages stand offered bigorneaux or periwinkles and huîtres de Bouzigues, oysters from Bouzigues, a nearby lagoon famous for its oysters, palourde (small smooth-shelled clams) and moules de Thau, mussels. They also sold violet de roche, a shellfish in the class of sea animals known as tunicates, a kind of filter feeder.

The violet (Microcosmus sulcatus) is also known as sea fig in French, sea lemon in Italian, and cow’s tit in Sicilian. I think it should be translated as sea egg. It’s a mighty strange creature with a leathery skin that attaches to rocks and passes seawater through one protuberance and out another. Its meat looks like scrambled eggs and it has a distinctive taste of iodine.

The coquillages stand also sold an intriguing little spicy octopus pie that I just had to have. I bought the tielle sètoise, a delicious 5-inch diameter pie with a quiche-like wavy edge stuffed with chopped octopus in a spicy hot tomato sauce. Although a little messy to eat standing up, this was a pie I could eat again and again.

You can replicate the experience at home by buying a good batch of oysters and littlenecks (make sure you have at least two people who know how to open them) and piling them raw in the center of a large round tray filled with chipped ice. Surround them with steamed shrimp, steamed lobster or crab (for show), and steamed mussels, all cooled, and serve only with lemons.

Mollusks should only be sold live, so that’s how you should find them at reputable fishmongers. They can be stored in the refrigerator just as you bought them until needed. Wash them well, pulling the so-called “beard” off the mussels. To be thorough, let them soak in cold water with a tablespoon of baking soda so they purge themselves of every last grain of sand.

If you use lobster, it should be live and steamed for 12 minutes. As you are unlikely to find fresh shrimp, the best frozen shrimp I’ve come across are from India or Bangladesh, so read the label. You’ll be happy and messy.

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

Photo: Opening an oyster. Credit: Michelle van Vliet

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).