Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-12-22
Whether speaking of the king-sized Belon flat or the claire refined Marennes-Oléron cupped, all of the wealth of the sea is naturally present in the oyster: a 100% natural product if ever there was one! We’ve chosen for you a few of the most talented oyster growers in France.
The oyster, a bivalve mollusc more than 350 million years old, has hardly evolved since its early appearance on earth. How does it survive? By filtering salt water to obtain phytoplankton, algae, and particles in suspension, all of which give it its delicious iodized flavour. As early as the Palaeolithic era, oysters were used in trade, both as foodstuff and for their shells, which have served as jewellery, currency and even as voting ballots in ancient Greece...
Flat oyster, cupped oyster
There are two main groups of edible oysters. Firstly, the flat, or European, oyster, which was harvested along all of the European coasts until a virus came along and destroyed the native population in the mid-19C. The ‘Belon’ is the only one that survived; it is named after Brittany’s Belon River, as oysters have long been farmed in this small river’s estuary.
Secondly, the cupped oyster is by far the most prevalent type worldwide. In 1868 the Portuguese cupped oyster, a native of the Tagus River, was accidentally introduced in France after a shipwreck. This variety was also decimated by an epidemic in 1969, to be replaced by another, more robust, species: the Pacific cupped oyster from Japan.
Among the most delicious oysters available today are the Belon 0000 from Brittany (the plumpest of flat oysters weighing in at 120g, it is also called ‘horse hoof’ because of its heft and shape); the claire-refined oyster from Marennes-Oléron (full and plump); and the succulent English Colchester.
Substrate, water quality, salinity, influence of the currents, tides and oxygenation: all of these parameters are extremely important! But even more, perhaps, than the environment, the savoir faire of the oyster grower is the crux of the matter, from measuring the growth rate of the shells, seeding, cultivating, and moving from bed to bed to daily cleaning, or dredging... Just as there are great French winegrowers, there are great French oyster growers! Those we’ve chosen and listed below are the stars of their profession.
The Rolls of the claire refined, the Gillardeau is a world star! Born in Normandy, the oyster is raised and refined in claires*, the clayey open-air salt water basins which ensure the excellent reputation of Marennes-Oléron. Richer in nutritive substances than the ocean, these claires are used to fatten oysters while preserving their purity and freshness; it’s the Blue Navicula, a micro-algae, which gives them their famous green hue. What sets the Gillardeau apart from other oysters? The cultivation process, naturally! Over the course of nearly a century, the Gillardeau family has succeeded in producing the perfect oyster: tender yet toothsome, fine, plump and rounded... Finer fish mongers carry these deluxe oysters in season.
A grower from Saint-Just, in the heart of the Marennes-Oléron, David Hervé is known for his claire refined oysters and especially his ‘royale cabanon’, an exceptionally fleshy, firm creature which has an area of 0.5 m2 all to itself – ten times more than its peers! This ‘old-fashioned’ cultivation method, which lasts 2 to 3 months, provides the oyster with more than its fair share of trace elements, in addition to a very pronounced hazelnut flavour and an incredible lingering aftertaste or ‘finish’.
There are territories which favour oysters just as there are conditions which favour wine! This is the case for the now-legendary ponds of Prat-ar-Coum, a unique site located at the point of Brittany and protected by a rampart of heath naturally irrigated by fresh water. It is here that Yvon Madec carries on the family business created in 1898, raising ‘la grand cru des abers’, a fleshy, iodine-rich flat oyster with a distinct hazelnut flavour. Yvon also produces magnificent lobsters, langoustes and spider crabs. A must!
At La Porte Neuve, in the town of Riec-sur-Belon, Jacques Cadoret’s illustrious flat and cupped oysters are raised with the greatest respect for the environment: the water is as pure as can be and no chemical products are ever used. Refined in the fresh waters of the Belon River, these delectable oysters, with their subtly wooded flesh, are noted for their finesse.
La Perle blanche
Originally a resident of the sluices of the Charente-Maritime département, when still young the Perle blanche (white pearl) is taken to the beds of Utah Beach in Normandy where the sea is quite rich in plankton. It grows ever plumper during approximately two years before returning to the Marennes claires where it is refined yet another year. Thus the White Pearl is grown in two different biotypes. Naturally white (but not milky), delicate and mild, its generous flesh fills the entire shell. Perfect for ‘beginners’ who might not yet be ready to appreciate an oyster with a stronger, more iodized flavour.
The Cancale oyster
The Cancale oyster, which owes its stardom to the great chef Olivier Roellinger, is cultivated by forty-odd growers at the base of local cliffs much like a superior vintage. Each farm raises and refines its oysters, metre after metre, according to tradition. Depending on how quickly the tide ebbs and flows, and how much fresh water spills into the salt, crops will have different flavours; the various production methods simply underline these differences.
I recommend the cupped oysters of the Maison Goudé, introduced in 1972. Cultivated over a period of three years, they have a strong iodine flavour and pronounced aftertaste. As for the Maison Biard-Quéma, they are famous for their ocean-farmed flat oysters and their cupped Crassostrea gigas Cancale.
What to drink with oysters?
The ideal libation is an extra brut Champagne, a non-dosage or unsweetened champagne. Lively, mineral, dry and sharp, this family of champagne will bring out the iodized, marine quality of the oysters while preserving their subtle, nut-like flavour.
I recommend the non-dosage brut Champagnes of the Maison Drappier, as well as Larmendier Bernier’s ‘Terre de Vertu’ vintage; Tarlant’s extra brut would also be a perfect choice; and Anselme Selosse’s extra brut reigns at the top of this illustrious heap!
Equally delicious, but easier on the budget, I recommend the organic Muscadets of Guy Bossard, one of the Loire Valley’s most remarkable winegrowers.
In another range, the Alsatian Sylvaners, notably those of Pierre Frick or André Ostertag, bring a delicious freshness which complements fleshier oysters. And why not uncork a grand Chablis grown in vineyard soil rich in crushed shells, such as those by Dauvissat and Raveneau, or a mineral Meursault from Guy Roulot?
If you’re looking to surprise your guests, you might also serve a red wine. I recall a luncheon at the home of the Mitjaviles, the renowned vintners of Saint-Émilion, where I was served Gillardeau oysters with a decanted Roc de Cambes 2004 (a wine noted for its freshness): wonderfully imaginative!
*’Fines de claire’ or claire-refined oysters spend several weeks in the refinement beds called ‘claires’.
Les Viviers de Prat-ar-Coum
Tel: 02 98 04 00 12
These oysters may be sampled at L’Écailler du Bistrot restaurant located 22, Rue Paul Bert in Paris’s 11th arrondissement.
La Perle blanche
Goudé Père et fils et Biard-Quéma
Lotissement ostréicole du Vauhariot
Tel: 02 99 89 60 70 / 02 99 89 67 42