The Vanderbilts, who owned the grand Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., loved to dine on oysters.
In the 1904 estate menu diary, oysters are listed often as a favorite, ranging from oysters served simmering in broth, on the half-shell, broiled, fried, scalloped or a la poulette.
Known locally as ‘Oysters Biltmore”, oysters prepared a la poulette are poached in a rich bechamel sauce made with oyster liquor and chicken broth.
This treasured recipe takes the bechamel component of a la poulette oysters one step further and adds another favorite Vanderbilt ingredient: country ham from their beloved Virginia. The sauce is broiled on top of half-shell oysters. The result is toasty brown and rich with cheese.
And how were Oysters Biltmore served? On a bed of rock salt, often on a plate that said, “Votes for Women”, a favorite of Alva Vanderbilt, the Vanderbilt heiress who went from debutante to suffragette.
So while some might associate Oysters Biltmore only with the elite of America, it seems they also came to represent the efforts of countless women who marched to secure the right to speak and right to vote.
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 large scallion, green and white parts, finely chopped (3 tablespoons)
- 2 ounces country ham, finely chopped (1/3 cup)
- 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
- 1 1/2 ounces Swiss cheese, finely grated (1/2 cup)
- 18 small to medium Taylor Oysters
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.
- Once it’s foamy, whisk in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, then add the milk slowly, whisking to make sure no lumps form.
- Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a thick white sauce.
- Remove from the heat and cool completely. Stir in the scallion, ham, Tabasco sauce and cheese.
- Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler.
- Spread a good amount of kosher salt on a baking sheet.
- Shuck the oysters on a dish towel, cup side down, taking care to keep the liquor from spilling. Place each opened oyster on the salt so it is level, anchoring it securely.
- Spoon a tablespoon of sauce over each oyster.
- Broil the oysters for 3 minutes, until the edges of the oysters curl and the sauce is browned and bubbling.
- Serve warm.