When trying oysters for the first time, many people find it's beneficial to first introduce a more subtle oyster dish and then gradually move on to fresh oysters. If you are feeling oyster-shy but still want to see what all the fuss over oysters is about, consider the following recipe for "Huître Gratinées (Oysters in Cheese Sauce)" from Sarah Woodward's "The Food of France" (Kyle Books). If you find this dish fits your fancy, you can then go deeper into your exploration of this beloved delicacy.
Huîtres Gratinées (Oysters in Cheese Sauce)
Serves 4 as a first course
16 fine oysters
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon white dry vermouth
11/4 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs from a baguette
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaved parsley
2 tablespoons finely grated hard cheese, such as Gruyere
Freshly ground black pepper
Open the oysters over a pan to catch the juices and then sieve the juice - you should end up with around 1 cup. Scrape out the oysters and keep cool. Place the deeper half of each shell in hot water and scrub well.
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Make a béchamel sauce by first melting the butter over a gentle heat and then stirring in the flour. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring all the time, until lightly caramel-colored. Add the vermouth, cook 1 minute, and then slowly start stirring in the milk. Once all the milk is amalgamated, cook another 5 minutes, still stirring, until you have a thick sauce. Remove from the heat.
In a separate pan, bring the oyster juice to the boil, reduce to a simmer and then slip in the oysters. Simmer the oysters for 1 minute only, then remove them with a slotted spoon. Arrange the scrubbed shells in a gratin dish and divide the oyster flesh equally among them. Add just enough of the oyster liquid to the béchamel sauce to relax it (around half of the liquid) and then spoon the sauce over the oysters.
Mix together the breadcrumbs, parsley and cheese and scatter over the oysters; season with pepper. Cook in the oven until the sauce is bubbling and the topping nicely browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve straight away.