Oysters from the French coast In Pursuit of French Oysters

The sun is shining, but in half a minute that will probably change. I’m following Dominique Friou as the hulking Frenchman strides through the mudflats here in La Bernerie-en-Retz on the Atlantic coast—where the 2018 Tour de France began its journey around the country. Dominique, or just Dom, is as big as a château and he navigates the mud with aplomb while I, with my much shorter, brand-new boots, gingerly pick my spots with more than a slight sense of concern that I may lose a boot to this thick mud.

Oysters from this part of France—the French flat oyster, the Belon or Ostrea edulis—have been prized since basically forever. They were even shipped to Rome when it had Emperors. The institution of oyster farming, developed on this windy stretch of coast just south of the Loire Estuary, began in the 17th century. Natural beds were being overfished and so the first oyster farms appeared as wooden stakes for oyster spat to attach itself to. As delicious as these local bivalves are, the importance of salt as a form of currency made these coastal marshes salt flats. As the importance of salt declined, these marshes were abandoned and eventually gave way to oyster farming.

 

These days it’s the Crassostrea Gigas from Japan that is cultivated here. The Belon Oyster and a subsequent replacement from Portugal are no longer viable, having been devastated by mass die-offs. As I try to match Dom’s giant strides through the oyster flats he explains how the marsh is managed. There are large tractors on the horizon, pushing through the mud, as men stack oyster bags on a flatbed trailer. The oysters in the Baie de Bourgneuf are grown on racks in mesh bags in the tidal flats. The waters in the bay are kept fairly predictable, even during storm surges in a large part by the Île de Noirmoutier, an island that runs the length of the bay; Dom points it out on the horizon just as sideways rain marks a moment between sun breaks.

Plankton, a primary food source for the oysters, is plentiful in the surface waters of the cold Atlantic. These racks allow for the growing oysters to sit at a nearly perfect feeding depth when the tide does come in. The rows of racks are hard to decipher to the untrained eye, as they look to be randomly staggered throughout the mud. Dom explains that they all belong to different people; he has racks here and over there, and these rows close by belong to one of the neighbors. It’s reminiscent of the divisions of old French vineyards where different families farm different rows in the same space.

Back on terra firma, Dom explains that three-year-old oysters, graded by both their size and age, are best for eating raw, and we both seem to appreciate them that way. A splash of lemon and the local briny oysters seem perfectly paired with the wines that happen to be produced just a few hundred yards from this very coast, made from a Loire Valley grape called Folle Blanche. When I open an oyster that has a green hue, Dom beams—“it’s special” he seems to say, though in French it sounds more genuine than the various definitions the word can have for us in English. The color is derived from a particular microalgae, eaten by the oysters; and those in the know, know enough to appreciate them. These local oysters are known for their location, Vendée-Atlantique, as opposed to their species—a testament to both nature’s bounty and mankind’s ingenuity and persistence against time and the odds, adapting with the aim of preserving an important element of French coastal culture.