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Brittany's Natural Oysters: Stories and Facts

Brittany's Natural Oysters: Stories and Facts

Oysters, one of the most luxurious and tasty food from the sea. Stories about Brittany's oysters, from Louis XIV to the sustainable farms in Cancale

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If you enjoy oysters on the half shell, Brittany is the place to indulge in this treat. Jutting toward the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean with over 2800 km of coastline, Brittany provides nearly 60,000 tons of oysters each year, almost 50% of the total French oyster production. Rock oysters (huîtres creuses) and flat oysters (huîtres plates) are renowned delicacies worldwide, and are widely farmed all across the region.

In most small harbours, you can even buy straight from the fishing boats while they unload their wares for the Criée (the fresh fish auction, a unique experience); for a small fee, the vendors down by the water will gladly open oysters for you, allowing you to slurp them up right by the sea: what more could you ask for? Just thinking of a freshly. You can then eat them by the sea — what more could you ask for? Just thinking of a freshly shucked oyster, glittering grey and briny, with a sprinkle of lemon juice is enough to make any gourmand’s mouth water.

Not far from the Mont Saint Michel, you’ll find Cancale, fairly small as towns go, but considered by many oyster lovers to be "the true oyster capital of the world". This is where Louis XIV, often remembered as the "Sun King", usually preferred his oysters to come from, and he had them freshly delivered to Versailles by riders on galloping horses. Today, many of the finest restaurants in Paris still buy oysters only from Cancale.

In France, oysters are categorized by names and numbers (ranging from 0-5 for the rock variety and up to 0-6 for the flat) which correspond to their sizes in reverse order. The higher the number, the smaller the mollusk. And not everyone knows that, as with wines, the term “cru” label also applies to oysters, and there are 12 different “crus” for the oysters from Brittany.

Some of the most noteworthy ones are the Aven Belon oyster, with its slightly sweet hazelnut taste; Cancale, whose texture is both flexible and firm, with a marked salty perfume; Paimpol, the offshore oyster par excellence – fat, crunchy and salty, or Golfe du Morbihan oysters with its subtle hint of algae.

Jonathan Swift is quoted as having said, «he was a bold man that first ate an oyster», but evidence of oyster consumption goes back far back into history. The Romans who first settled in Britain also loved them. Ten centuries later, French King Louis XIV had a weakness for them. Napoleon IIIasked Victor Coste to study the oyster farms in Italy, which eventually lead to modern oyster farming in the mid-19th century. Soon, overconsumption became a real problem. Already threatened by environmental problems, the oyster is now also victim of consumer demands, which doesn’t respect the natural cycle of reproduction.

Thus a new variety of Triploid oysters (also called by the more poetic name, “4 seasons oysters”) has been recently introduced. Equipped with an extra chromosome, they are sterile, never milky and focus their energies to feed and develop more quickly to ensure constant presence on the market. However, a deadly virus in oysters developed in the eighties – possibly caused by the spread of biotechnologies- causing the slaughter of shellfish and jeopardizing the activity, forcing many small farmers to close.

Back in 1997, oyster farmers in the Ria d’Etel and the Gulf of Morbihan developed specifications for an «Ostréiculture Durable et Solidaire». Their goal is to promote a sustainable approach, with an evolving specification on product quality, environmental compliance and ethics. The network “Coherence Ostreiculture Durable et Solidaire” will participate in upcoming Slow Fish Expo at the Genoa Fair: until a mandatory labeling is established, its members are aiming at increasing consumer awareness of the oyster seasonality and its breeding methods. They also guarantee oysters born in the sea and friendly farming conditions with, for example, the number of bags per hectare limited to 4000.

Benoît Le Joubioux, oyster farmer in the river Penerf and president of “Ostréiculture Traditionnelle” also defends traditional oyster farming, which leaves time for the oysters to grow naturally. «The issue is the difficulty of distinguishing between oysters born at sea from the hatched ones. This is why we created the label "Ostréiculture Traditionnelle, Huîtres nées en mer" to guaranty a  100% natural and unmodified product» he says.

Oysters have inspired many poetic words  from writers and gourmands in every era. From the novel Bel Ami by Maupassant: «The Ostend oysters were served​​, cute and fat, like little ears enclosed in shells, melting between the palate and tongue like savory bonbons». Besides its gustative qualities, the oyster is full of good things: vitamins, minerals and especially iodine.

Moreover it is low in calories (75 calories per 100 g). And, of course, it’s widely believed to be an aphrodisiac: Casanova, the 18th Century lover, used to breakfast on 50 oysters each day to boost his libido! A team of US and Italian researchers have since proved since then that oysters really do have an aphrodisiacal effect on humans. You’re going to get seriously saucy in Brittany!

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