Slurp It Up

Oyster Alert: Julep Brings In Rare Belon Bivalves

One of the world's best—and rarest—oysters makes a special appearance today at Julep.

By Katharine Shilcutt April 16, 2015

The Belon oyster from France closely resembles the Maine-grown Belon oysters now being served at Julep.

Image: Shutterstock

As the story is related by Joan Reardon in her biography of M.F.K. Fisher, Poet of the Appetites, it was in Marseilles where the food writer and famous oyster connoisseur once embarassed her new husband's family by ordering two dozen Belon oysters as an appetizer before dinner. Whether the embarassment was a result of l'américaine overindulging at a fine French restaurant or Fisher's overindulgence in front of her in-laws or perhaps a combination of both has been lost to time, though what remains is this fact: Fisher truly adored her Belons, as do most oyster aficionados.

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Belon, or European flat, oysters have a long history which some date back to the world's first commercial oyster harvester: Sergius Orata, who created the first artificial oyster beds using twigs and terracotta tiles in southern Italy's Lucrine Lake circa 100 B.C. Since then, the flat oyster has enjoyed great acclaim in its native Europe, iconized in the sumptuous still-lifes of the great Dutch masters and celebrated as one of the greatest oysters in the world. This, despite a reputation as being one of less approachable varieties, a reputation that led oyster writer Rowan Jacobsen to refer to Belons as the "Sean Penn" of oysters.

"No oyster comes close to the power of the European Flat," writes Jacobsen in A Geography of Oysters. "It is brassy, in every sense of the word. Brassy because it tastes like metal, and because it is shamelessly bold, and because when it hits your tongue it slaps you awake like the opening blast of a bugler’s reveille. Try one if you can—just don’t make it your first oyster."

Hopefully, living in Houston means that the Belon wouldn't be your first anyway; you've already had your share of oysters over the years—though most of those were probably our big, beefy Gulf Coast variety. Should you wish to sample a famous Belon for yourself, you're in luck: Julep received a few sacks today, but they'll go fast.

These Belon oysters aren't from France, however. Despite the fact that France is the leading producer and consumer of oysters in Europe, you simply won't find French oysters in the US—our goverment mostly forbids the importing and sale of foreign oysters (with notable exceptions for only Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Korea and New Zealand). The Belon oysters at Julep come instead from Maine, where they've been thriving since scientists brought them to Boothbay Harbor in the 1950s and the oysters promptly went wild, spreading like the bivalve equivalent of kudzu.

Despite this, only 5,000 of the Belon oysters are harvested each year, making them one of the rarest in the world. News of Belon oysters popping up outside of Maine is always exciting, as one Gothamist article put it in 2011 when they made a quick appearance at The John Dory Oyster Bar in New York City: "[T]hey'll probably all be gone by the end of the weekend, so get over there fast if you want to be able to tell your grandchildren about that one time before the Apocalypse when you blithely tossed back outlaw oysters for $4.50 a pop."

Julep is still setting prices on their Belons, says owner Alba Huerta, but expect them to be a more affordable pre-apocalypse luxury when they go on sale today at 4 p.m. for around $3 to $4 each. Though if you decide to pull an M.F.K. Fisher and order a couple dozen for yourself, be prepared for some hard looks of your own, oyster hoarder.


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