In many countries, fish is the traditional choice for Christmas Eve.
Italy has its Feast of Seven Fishes (now often reduced to a more moderate five to fit with modern appetites), which might include salt cod or anchovies, spaghetti with clams and whole roast fish. Spain has besugo al horno – a large bream baked on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes scented with saffron. Poland celebrates with a spread centred on whole carp and pickled herrings together with vegetable-based dishes, such as pierogi dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese.
Britain has no such tradition these days, which means Christmas Eve food tends to be a bit of a free-for-all. That said, I’ll often make a fish pie or pescatarian stew, or grill a couple of sole, depending on how many mouths there are to feed. I also rather like the somewhat decadent French idea – observed in bourgeois households at least – of starting the Christmas feast with a plateful of oysters. It is, if nothing else, a fittingly winter treat. Oysters are at their best in the cold months, when eating them feels invigorating – like diving headlong into an icy pool.
Oysters should be easy enough to find at a good fishmonger at this time of year. They also seem to be increasingly available on the fresh fish counters of larger supermarkets. If you happen to get your hands on some round-shelled native oysters, lucky you. They need nothing more than a squeeze of lemon, if that. But the more widely found pacific (aka rock) oysters benefit from the addition of a tiny splash of something piquant. I’ve given you a couple of simple ideas below – the classic mignonette (finely chopped shallots in vinegar) and another with a more Asian bent.
To open the shells, you’ll need an oyster knife. Hold it in one hand and wrap the other in a tea towel to protect it. Pick up an oyster in the towelled hand, with the curved side facing downwards and the narrow end towards you.
Insert the oyster knife in the hinge at the narrow end, and wiggle it about a bit from left to right. You will have to press quite hard, but eventually the hinge will give way. Use the knife to lift the flat top shell by twisting the blade upwards, then slide the knife along the underside of the flat shell to cut the ligament that connects it to the oyster. Take off the top shell, then remove any splinters of shell from the liquor and cut underneath the oyster to release it. You can flip the oyster meat over in its shell if you want.
Each sauce below will dress at least 2 dozen oysters.
Sauce mignonette (shallot vinegar)
1 echalion shallot, peeled and very finely chopped
5 tbsp red wine vinegar
½ tsp caster sugar
Mix together the shallots and vinegar, adding the sugar and a good grind of black pepper. Let them become acquainted for an hour before serving.
Chilli, lime and coriander dressing
1 medium red chilli
2 tsp caster sugar
4 tbsp lime juice (from about 2 limes)
2 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc nam)
1 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves
Cut the chilli in half lengthways and remove the seeds and the surrounding membranes. Slit each half a few times lengthways, then slice across into tiny red squares. Mix with the other ingredients and leave for an hour before you use it.
Lucas Hollweg is an award-winning food writer, cookbook author and cook. A former Sunday Times journalist and cookery columnist, he writes for a wide range of food publications. His most recent book isGood Things to Eat.