France

The Passion
18th & 19th Century
•• Coste
Belle Epoque
20th Century
Normandy
North-Brittany
South-Brittany
West-Central
Marennes-Oléron
••L'Affinage
••Green
••Claires
Arcachon
••Naissains
••Captage
Mediterranean

French Terms


L'Affinage en Claires: The Quest for the Perfect Oyster!
John McCabe

Among oyster lovers, qualifying an oyster as a "perfect oyster" will usually hinge on personal preferences. The oystermen of Marennes-Oléron have known this for centuries and have long adjusted accordingly. Their answer: produce lots of different tasty oysters for every taste preference. And, amazingly enough, they can accomplish this with one oyster species, the Pacific oyster. Hence, it is impossible in Marennes-Oléron not to find an oyster which does not match one's personal preference. They have them all - even oysters with emerald green meat! In fact, they have so many different oyster styles and names, that it can initially lead to a bit of pleasant confusion. Faced with such a variety, the best thing to do in Marennes-Oléron, is to stay a few days and simply try them all.

Basically, there are only two main oyster categories: those oysters which have spent time in so called "claires", special refinement basins, and those who have not. Those which have not spent any time in "claires" are called "Huîtres de Parc" ("park oysters"). The Huîtres de Parc are usually the most affordable oysters. They originate directly from the growing areas right by the ocean. They have not been "refined", other than having been raised with the tedious "rack and bag" method, thus featuring a more or less favorable shape for slurping off the half shell. These oysters have a typical "ocean flavor", which many oyster lovers simply love.

The rest of the oyster types offered are "claire refined oysters" which have not only spent a varying amount of time in claires, but also in varying oyster population densities. It's called "L'affinage en Claires" ("the refinement in claires"). That is what oysters from Marennes-Oléron are world famous for. More than 80% of all the "claire refined" oysters in France come from this region. The shallow brackish water in these claires is very rich in phytoplankton, microscopic algae, the favorite food of all the oysters on our planet. The brakish water also changes the "oceany" taste of the typical "park oysters" over by the sea to a more "sweetish", aromatic, and rich flavor. The algae also grow somewhat differently in these shallow pools. In fact, certain tasty microscopic algae species grow particularly well in these claires. The claires of Marennes-Oléron also need to be maintained. Periodically (usually in spring), they are drained and cleaned out thoroughly. Any kind of predator or competitive species finding its way into the claires is methodically removed. These claires are "luxurious oyster resorts" reserved only for selected oysters.

What happens in these claires in terms of refinement is quite complex and also governed by very strict rules. Oysters, which have been cared for in claires have special names.

"Les Fines de Claires" are nicely formed oysters, which have been refined for about a month in claires to improve their taste, texture and meat weight. About 30 to 40 oysters will share a space of one square meter (less than a three square foot area).

"La Spéciale de Claires" describes a nicely formed oyster, which has spent about two to four months in a claire and offers excellent meat weight and flavor. Only about 5 to 10 oysters share an area of one square meter.

"Label Rouge" designates those oysters, which have received exceptional care in the claires. Any oyster bearing the qualification "Label Rouge" has been refined under very strict rules, limiting the amount of oysters permitted per square meter in a particular claire. Any oyster in the market bearing the Label Rouge distinction is certain to be of superb quality. Shell shape, size, meat weight, texture and flavor must be as perfect as can possibly be achieved. Among the Label Rouge, there are also specialties such as "Les Fines de Claires - Verte Label Rouge", which describes superb oysters with green meat. "La Spéciale - Pousse en Claire - Label Rouge" describes an exceptional oyster, which may have spent quite a number of months (possibly 4 to 8) in a claire with very few neighbors per square meter (usually totaling no more than 5). It will be meaty, firm, its shell will be nicely formed, and it will possess a wonderful aroma and most delightful flavor.

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