Italian adventurer Casanova was a fan of oysters and it’s said that he ate 50 for breakfast. Sounds a little over the top and yet oysters are a natural food source, responsibly and sustainably grown and harvested. Both wild and farmed oysters are rich in rare amino acids and zinc. The latter is an essential trace element or mineral for health that the body does not produce, instead relying on external sources for its supply.
A potted history of the oyster
Fossil records indicate that the oyster dates back a staggering 145 million years, since the beginning of humanity. It’s from the bivalve mollusc families which includes mussels, clams, cockles and scallops. Oysters have been grown in France for centuries and it was the first country in Europe to begin producing them on a large scale.
Napoleon III is credited with introducing oyster parks in the 1800s because the gathering of wild oysters was wiping the species out. Today, France produces between 130,000 to 145,000 metric tons of Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) and 1,000 to 3,000 metric tons of European oysters (Ostrea edulis) each year.
Where do oysters grow?
The tasty little mollusc lives in brackish water such as estuaries, harbours, lakes, and lagoons which provide a combination of fresh and saltwater. They have been farmed in the Lagune de Thau, in the Mediterranean and in the Bay of Arcachon since Roman times. Back then the only species was the plate or flat oyster, known as the Belon, named after its location. Today, France also produces the Creuse oyster featuring the familiar convex shell. They are more difficult to grow so they are produced in smaller quantities which are more expensive. The seven distinct oyster growing regions are Normandy, North-Brittany, South-Brittany, West-Central, Marennes-Oléron, Arcachon, and the Mediterranean. You can read about the oyster regions here.
L’ostréiculture: the process of growing oysters
Oysters are generally grown using one of three methods: raised, suspended or seabed, dependent upon tradition, tides, species and so on. As there are no tides in the Mediterranean, the technique of gluing is widely used in the basin de Thau.
The baby oysters start life in small ‘nursery’ pods. As they grow quite quickly, they are soon attached individually on to long ropes and immersed in the water. It takes between 18 months to three years for a Pacific oyster to mature to market size. The time taken is dependent on factors such as tides, nutrients, climates and weather. In the final phases, at around 24 to 36 months, they are moved closer to the shore for a few weeks to harden off by spending part of the day exposed out of water.
Different types of oyster naturally produce different flavours and signatures. Michelin star chefs are very particular about the oysters they choose. Keen to access this market, in 1986, family-run oyster growers Le Domaine Tarbouriech at Lagune de Thau developed and patented a remarkable process that mimics the tides absent in the Mediterranean using solar power. With more space created in which to develop, the oysters on the 55 farming tables have access to more food. This produces more flesh which is firm and sweet. Each of the four types of Creuse – Crassostrea Gigas (Pacific) oysters grown here has its own characteristic, such as a hint of hazelnut or a lighter iodine taste. Today Tarbouriech oysters are grown for ‘starred restaurants and gourmet tables’ such as Guy Savoy and Gilles Goujon.
How to eat oysters
After harvesting the oysters are cleaned and purified to remove any sand or other detritus, and packed live for dispatch.
On a restaurant menu oysters are graded or standardized from 000 to 6. The smaller number indicates a larger size. Even more confusingly, the French designation Fines indicates small to medium size. And, a Speciales label indicates a larger and fleshier oyster.
At a guess you might think that in earlier times, people simply bashed the oysters against a rock, much as birds open a snail. Yet archaeological evidence indicates that many oyster shells from the Mesolithic period, or Middle Stone Age, are undamaged. Instead they show scorch marks possibly caused by fire, so it seems they simply cooked them whole. You can use a special oyster knife to shuck an oyster and a steady hand will keep the tasty juices inside.
Although now considered a luxury food, in the early 19th century, oysters were cheap and mainly eaten by the working classes. Of course, they can be eaten au naturel. Oysters can also be used in cooked dishes such as soup or grilled with butter. Though some think you should swallow them whole, actually with their unique texture, oysters should be chewed.
Recipe for tartare of Oysters tartine by Mireille Giuliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat.
More than 90% of the oysters produced in France are consumed by the French. From a sustainable viewpoint that equates to minimal transportation. You’ll get them fresh almost anywhere along the French coastline, including the Mediterranean. One of my most memorable dining experiences was eating fresh oysters at a tasting counter overlooking the Lagune de Thau. You can’t beat eating sublimely fresh food just metres from where it grows…
Irene Caswell is a food and travel writer. You can find her at www.hashtagtraveller.com