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Bassin d’Arcachon

by Christie Kiley

Oyster villages in the Arcachon Basin

As you may know if you read the latest article, our oyster experience during our last night in Bordeaux was a complete flop.  It could have quite possibly ruined our craving all together, but it only gave us more motivation to go out and find the best.  So what better, than to go directly to the source?  Only about an hour southwest of Bordeaux you will find yourself in Arcachon Bay.  Upon arrival, we toured the scenic route off the highway and if you ever find yourself here en route from Bordeaux to Arcachon, I recommend the back way on smaller roads.  The views are spectacular!   A couple hours later, after struggling to find a parking spot, we were more motivated to take a nap than get some oysters.  However, it was late in the afternoon and we knew if we wanted to catch a tour in time at the oyster museum, we would just have to muster up the energy and hold off the nap for later.

If you have come for the oysters, you can head straight for the bungalows lined up along the bay; however, if you can spend the time, the hour tour in the museum is really interesting and you will learn more about oysters and how they are cultivated, than you already know.  I will not spoil all of it for you, but I will share some interesting facts about Arcachon Bay and their oysters.

The view of Arcachon Bay, home to 4,000 oyster farms over the vast inland sea, covering 155 kilometers, and 800 hectares of oyster beds

Arcachon Bay is home to 4,000 oyster farms over the vast inland sea, covering 155 kilometers, and 800 hectares of oyster beds!  The reason which makes this an ideal home for oyster cultivation is the daily tides which occur twice a day.  These have an effect on the reproduction and development of the oysters, and most importantly their flavor.  This region is the leading, second largest and most important producer of oysters in Europe with exports to Brittany, Thau, Marennes, Normandy, Spain and Ireland with 10,000 tons of oysters harvested each year.

Oysters have always naturally lived in this bay, but the original species have been extinct for generations.  Oysters are particularly sensitive to climatic conditions and only a slight change in one or two degrees of the water’s temperature can affect whether or not they spawn.  Following the extinction of the original oysters cultivated in Arcachon Bay, a new batch of Portuguese oysters arrived by accident. A ship from Portugal carrying oysters aboard, could not enter the bay due to a storm.  After a few days, they were forced to throw the oysters over the side of the ship as they were damaged. Unbeknownst to the crew, some of the oysters had survived and in just a few years, the Portuguese oysters had colonized the bay.  These oysters, due to less than ideal climatic conditions were completely extinct by 1970.  Today the Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas, is under cultivation in Arcachon.  Sadly, it is already foreseen that these might go into extinction in the near future as well. 

The first rights to farm oysters were granted in 1852.  The method used today for cultivating oysters is quite modern, though it has been in practice for over a hundred years.  Originally, they were dredged from natural stocks.  The method using the concave tiles today was designed by Vincent Coste, with the liming technique by Jean Michelet.  These tiles, taking on the shape much like terracotta roof tiles, are dipped in a thick water and lime mix, which is then dried.  In order for oysters to develop, they need something to attach themselves to and the coating of lime creates a surface for them to do so. 

Arcachon oystermen call these ridge tiles collecteurs (collectors). The tiles are anywhere from 18” to 2' long. The most important side is the concave side, as it is here, where most of the oyster babies

Following six months, the cultivator must remove or scrape the baby oysters from the tiles, only measuring less than a half inch to one and a half inches in length.  They are then arranged in metal mesh bags so as to protect them from all the predators who find them just as delicious as we do.  The bags are placed on racks so that they may be protected from the currents and storms.  Eighteen months later, the oysters are transferred again to larger bags; the bags must be removed from their racks, ‘knocked’ around a bit and turned over to keep them separated and allow them to grow more uniformly.  It is only after three years that the oysters are ready!  I do not know about you, but I had no idea it took three years for an oyster to arrive at my table! 

Oysters arranged in metal mesh bags so as to protect them from predators

There is so much to be learned about this region!  One more interesting tid bit before I move on: the royalty of France and most of Europe loved oysters so much that on certain days members of the royal court would consume up to fifty per person!  How many lemons do you need for that?!  So after the tour, we were more than ready to grab a dozen.  As I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of bungalows just outside the museum, but I recommend walking the length along the little inlet and back-tracking to one that catches your eye.  The prices vary, as do the sizes, but they are all fresh.  Of course!  We found one that was just opened with a nice deck that stretched out over the water.  Do not expect a fancy wine list, however; I will tell you they have white wine and it is good.   

I have to point out that there are three regions in the bay where the oysters are cultivated with varying depths of the water.  This will change the flavor and texture of the oyster.  They do not separate them, so even the dozen will vary slightly, each of them very nice with their own texture and flavor; some slightly saltier, some slightly creamier, some slightly sweeter or any combination of the three.  The first dozen oysters we had were so good, we could not resist in getting a second dozen and for just under 3euros per oyster including wine, (compared to double the price or slightly even more if we were inland) we had to enjoy them while we could.  Now, after a satisfying afternoon of delicious oysters, it is time for that nap. 

A delicious plate of fresh oysters to enjoy

 

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