A Glorious Treat for a Glorious Time of Year

PARIS - The French have long had a love affair with the oyster: They are perhaps the world's most voracious eaters of what can be lovingly referred to as those succulent bivalves, and they manage to consume two-thirds of the annual 141-ton harvest during the Christmas and New Year festivities.

That's good, for these briny, iodine-laden gifts from the sea are at their finest right now, when the waters and the weather are cold and our winter bodies seem to crave the oyster's natural dose of protein, minerals and vitamins.

When eating oysters, remember a few things: The larger the number, the smaller the oyster; number 5 is the smallest, number 000 the largest.

I always order the smallest oysters available, for I find the flavors more concentrated and natural. Anything other than a few drops of lemon juice or a twist of the pepper mill as a seasoning is sacrilege. (Although a mixture of vinegar and shallots is generally served, avoid it. The vinegar is usually much too acidic for the oysters, killing their delicate flavor, masking their fine aroma.) And while you will see French people drinking red wine with oysters, I also think that is a mistake. Oysters need the chill and the acid of a young white.

I can never get enough oysters, and at this time of year I think nothing of downing a dozen a day ration. My favorite spot for oysters remains the Guy Savoy bistro Le Cap Vernet, where one can always be assured of a prime selection of "brand name" oysters: those that carry the name of the man who raised them and tended the beds.

The four to sample here include Yvon Madec's crinkle-shelled "Creuses No. 4" (89 francs, about $14, for nine), which are very meaty with a subtle hazelnut flavor; Michel Daniel's oysters from the Breton port of Cancale, where they are raised in the sea (as opposed to seaside beds) and so have an intense iodine-rich flavor (74 francs for nine); Andre Taillepied's Normandy oysters from Isigny, raised in very agitated waters, which plumps them up and gives them an iodine purity (77 francs for nine No. 4), and the most famous of all, Gerard Gillardeau's "Speciales Claires No. 5,"also known as "La Papillon," worth the extra price (102 francs for nine) because they have all the best characters of an oyster - delicate, sweet, almost crunchy and tinged with the green of the former salt marshes of the Marennes-Oleron.

A PEDIGREE These pedigreed oysters begin their life in the cold waters off Utah Beach in Normandy, where they are raised in "parks" rich in plankton that plump the oysters and give them their rich flavor. Finally, they are fattened for several months in oyster beds off Marennes-Oleron near La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast, where they take on even more refined and concentrated flavors.

Le Cap Vernet is full day and night, service is generally excellent, the rye bread is fresh and moist, the chilled white Quincy wine - a pure sauvignon blanc from Domaine Mardon - is a perfect food and wine marriage.

Oyster sampling does not have to be a serious or expensive affair, now that many small oyster bars have popped up around Paris.

The newest is in a little corner in the back of an excellent fish shop right off the Marche Saint Honore, in the first arrondissement. You come to L'Ecume Saint-Honore for the oysters with yet another pedigree, not the bare atmosphere of plastic trays and paper napkins. Try the "Blanches" (150 francs a dozen), which are raised in the open sea, not aged or finished off in beds, making for an oyster that has an incredible sense of purity, a bit of nuttiness, as if you are literally drinking the best of the sea.

For a complete contrast, try the "Emeraudes" (145 francs a dozen), oysters that have been aged only one or two to a bed (as opposed to 50 or 60) for six to eight months and are rich in iodine, plump and meaty.

With the fish shop's "snack" formula - six oysters and a glass of wine for 50 francs - you cannot go wrong. Service is amiable, the staff passionate and informative, and the Sancerre goes down very easily. (But I am thinking of traveling with my own linen napkin.)

At the popular Bistro de l' Huitre-Joel D, I liked the oysters more than the rest of the experience. The service is slow, the rye bread is dry, the napkins are paper, the decor as chilly as the wind off the ocean. But look around, and you'll see yourself surrounded by happy people with only one thing on their minds.

The giant "Pleine Mer" oysters from the Quiberon Bay of Brittany - the wildest ones you can find in France - were remarkably fresh and meaty. I loved as well their nutty "Speciales de Normandie" - dense, intense and refreshing. The chilled Muscadet will assuage any discomfort you may feel, and the price is right, staring at 43 francs for six "Quiberon Pleine Mer No. 4."

Cap Vernet
82 Avenue Marceau
Paris 75008
Tel: 01-47-20-20-40
Fax: 01-47-20-95-36.
Open daily. Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Visa. Prices range from 75 to 102 francs for six oysters. Oyster-tasting menu, 130 francs.

L'Ecume Saint-Honore
6 Rue du Marche Saint Honore
Paris 75001
Tel: 01-42-61-93-87.
All major credit cards. Open Tuesday through Friday from 8:30 A.M. to 2 P.M. and 4 to 7:30 P.M.; Saturday from 8:30 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.; Sunday from 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. Six oysters and a glass of wine for 50 francs.

Bistrot de l'Huitre-Joel D
285 Rue Saint Jacques
Paris 75005
Tel: 01-43-54-71-70.
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard. Closed Sunday and Monday. Prices, for six oysters, begin at 45 francs.