To admit to a dislike of oysters is a bit like admitting an aversion to cheese in this particular area of France. It’s often met with a frown and genuine surprise, so I set out to discover what all the fuss was about. I have been advised many times to “simply swallow without chewing or even tasting”, but this is what I tell the children on the rare occasion when they might need to take a headache tablet; surely the same rules should not be applied to the world’s most famous seafood (not to mention much talked about aphrodisiac)?
We just happen to live in what many believe to be the oyster capital of France and when we first moved here I realised within months that I had to educate myself and find out a great deal more about these bi-valves. The Marennes-Oléron oyster is famous throughout the country, and abroad. There are around one and a half thousand oyster farms in the entire region with the highest percentage along the banks of the River Seudre, around the ancient coastal town of Marennes, and on the Île d’Oléron. For us, this is just a bike-ride away, and we’ve learned a lot over the past few years about these fabulous molluscs.
Nearly every day I pass local oyster farms and the huts and sheds where they sell their produce. Oysters are called “huîtres” in French, pronounced rather like weetre, no ‘h’ or ‘s’. If you’re in the area, you cannot miss the large signs all along the roadside.
The Marennes-Oléron oyster is often the focal point of local cuisine, and they are certainly not just for the rich and famous. They’re part of an everyday diet, eaten and purchased in much the same way here as many would stop and buy a McDonalds elsewhere in the world – but the difference is that they’re probably cheaper and a great deal healthier! Whether you’re a Parisian staying in your holiday home, or a local within walking distance, oysters are available all year round and provide a much welcome boost to diets and lifestyles. They are also a mainstay of the local economy and provide a vast number of both permanent and seasonal jobs.
Along with the oysters, shops also sell samphire and prawns, and they offer other temptations too – how about this for a ‘takeaway’ menu, below?
1/2 crab or crab claws, 6 langoustines, 6 whelks, 6 tropical prawns, local shrimps, 2 large Madagascan prawns, and 6 oysters – all for 19 euros which on today’s exchange is 16 pounds/20 US dollars ! And you know it’s dripping fresh, too…..
Oysters typically mature in four years. After being bred in beds 5 km out at sea, they are then finally matured for up to three months in shallow ponds called claires, which are the old tidal salt ponds between the land and the sea in the marsh, an area which has a mixture of fresh and salt water. Some specialties though are grown entirely in the claires and never get to taste the ocean at all. A microscopic blue algae is present in these ponds, called the blue navicula, and it is this that gives oysters finished in the claires their renowned greenish colour. This final stage is what produces the exceptional quality of the Marennes-Oléron oysters, the largest of which are termed Red Label, and command high prices.
Marennes-Oléron is Europe’s most prominent oyster production area, and it’s one of only two areas in France to reproduce oysters naturally, suppyling 45000 to 60000 tonnes every year to a world wide market.
Below are the racks used in the claires for growing the final oysters
and these are the vertical apartment blocks for the young spat, used far out at sea. Having learnt a lot about oyster production over the past few years I still had to learn to like them, and even if you don’t intend to taste a single morsel the whole region is an area not to be missed. Apart from the aquaculture, there is also much to be appreciated on a warm day by just wandering around the local oyster-producing towns and villages, some of which have been sending oysters on horse-back, and then by train, to Paris for over seven centuries! For the curious, we are told that a sack of unopened oysters can stay on the right side of edibility for up to four weeks in a fridge, but I personally struggle with this and would never put it to the test!
Take a seat at a local café, where you can either simply have a coffee and watch people come and go, or you can sit and eat. It’s all very laid back and casual, and being France, unhurried. Of course, you can also sidle up to the takeaway menu and go home and indulge yourself there!
Stroll amongst the old oyster sheds, beautifully preserved, many of which are now used by locals as summer cabins.
There are many theories that oysters should be eaten only when there is an R in the month, but here they are eaten year-round and spring, according to scientists, is the time of year when they have their greatest aphrodisiac quality. There are many old wives tales about eating raw oysters to stimulate the libido, and research has shown there may be some scientifically proven fact to the claim. However, I’ll leave you to make up your own minds (and no, despite the fact we had five children in ten years, Roddy did not feast solely on molluscs!). However, oysters do boast very high levels of zinc, protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, copper, manganese and selenium amongst other things, and they’re also a beneficial source of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
So, aphrodisiac or not, how do you serve them?
“Never cook a local oyster” is what you will be told by anyone from these parts, even though millions of them are served cooked throughout the world. A bed of ice might therefore seem traditional but the majority of people here seem to agree that this is not the way, and that they’re best when they are not too cold – others also say there is no need to add the usual tabasco sauce or lemon juice. Apparently you just need to savour the genuine taste of the sea and slurp straight from the shell, advice somewhat contrarily removed from what I am often told to do which is to simply swallow and not chew. In fact the deeper I delve into this the more contradictory the information I am given, “Chomp away as hard as you can,” would be the best way to translate the most recent French advice I was given at the weekend.
It seems it really is just down to individual taste and preference. I’ve come a long way on my journey to enjoy oysters. Now I eat and serve them mainly in the local French style, on a dish, with no ice, totally “au naturel“; but there will always be a vinaigrette, some lemon juice and even some tabasco sauce on the side for anyone not wishing to go totally native!