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


France
John McCabe

Many countries produce lots of wonderful oysters. However, no country in the world can offer a more complete oyster experience than France. Is it because French oysters always taste better than, for instance, American, British, Irish or Canadian oysters? No. The difference is that you're getting a French oyster in France, which means that it is served up along with a boat load of savoir vivre, backed by lots of cultivation savoir faire and national pride, all in a setting of immense cultural wealth. Regardless of how good or bad the service might be, no doubt ever exists in the mind of the French person serving you that you should feel privileged to be served the finest oysters in the world.

France and oysters go way back. Since Roman times, the coast of France has been the place of choice where prime oysters can be found. In modern times, France was the first country in all of Europe to start cultivating oysters on a large scale. It's called "L'ostréiculture" and, in turn, the growers are referred to as "Ostréiculteurs" or "Parqueurs". The oyster business is taken very seriously by growers, marine biologists (IFREMER), and ultimately by French connoisseurs. France controls more than 2,000 miles of coastline, featuring some of the finest oyster beds in the world. In 2005, approximately 3,400 French oyster growers produced an estimated 518 million Euros in sales.

From North to South there are seven distinct growing regions: Normandy, North-Brittany, South-Brittany, West-Central, Marennes-Oléron, Arcachon, and the Mediterranean. Although some of these areas are far more famous than others, they all produce excellent oysters.

Two culinary oyster species are cultivated in France:

* The Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) was introduced in the 1970s both from Japan (seed oysters) and British Columbia (brood oysters). This oyster species is referred to in the French market as "Huître creuse" or collectively simply as "Creuses". Some folks might still refer to this species as a "Japonaise". It replaced a similar (some claim same) oyster species in the early 1970s called the "Portuguese oyster" (Crassostrea angulata), nostalgically remembered as the "Portugaise". It was then also known as a "Creuse" among oyster lovers. Now, nearly extinct due to having been ravaged by gill diseases, the Portuguese oyster is commercially insignificant. Its demise (in the late 1960s - early 1970s) brought the French oyster industry to the brink of collapse. The cultivation transition from the Portuguese oyster to the Pacific oyster was rapid and most successful, as the traditional cultivation methods of the growers could be continued unaltered. Consumers also readily accepted the new "Japonaise", as both species look very similar. More than 90% of all the oysters produced in France today are Pacific oysters.

* The European oyster (Ostrea edulis) is the native oyster of France. It is called "Huître plate" or simply "Plate". In some areas it is also called a "Gravette". A so called "Pied de cheval" ("horse hoof") designates a particularly large (and rare) European oyster. The European oyster is often considered the classic oyster of France. Once upon a time, it was the mainstay of the French oyster industry. Historical over-harvesting and, later, devastating oyster diseases (Martellia refringens, Bonamia ostrea) have reduced its numbers greatly. In terms of total oyster production, the European oyster accounts for single digit percentages. Hence, it is also the most expensive oyster in France (or in all of Europe for that matter).

Inset image: A beautiful French stamp celebrating oysters. Both oysters pictured are Pacific oysters. The European oyster, once France's claim to fame, failed to make an appearance, likely because it has become rather scarce and accounts for only a small percentage of the oyster harvest. Click to view full cover with stamp (large image).

In the 19th century, there were three oyster capitals in the world: Paris, London and New York. Although fabulous oysters are still served in London and New York, these two grand cities have since lost their prestigious titles as oyster capitals of the world. Paris has not. To this day, this city offers countless opportunities to enjoy oysters, be it in restaurants or from a side walk vendors. Some kind of dry white wine or Champagne is generally suggested as an accompaniment. The classics in Paris are oysters from legendary French oyster cultivation areas such as Cancale, Marennes-Oléron, and Arcachon. The coast of France also offers fantastic oyster experiences. Virtually anywhere along the French coastline (including the Mediterranean) delicious oysters are served. Quite "naturellement", the locals in these areas praise their local oysters as the non plus ultra in taste. Usually a particular local wine is recommended by the host in order to properly optimize both the taste of the oyster as well as the "terroir experience" overall. Much like French wine growing areas, oyster cultivation areas are often informally refered to as "crus". The best part about the French coast is, however, the price of oysters. They usually cost half of what is charged in Paris.

Inset image: "Still Life with Oysters" (1940) by the famous French artist Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954) on a stamp from the Maldives. The oysters that "modeled" for his painting were Portuguese oysters (Crassostrea angulata), a species almost extinct today in French waters. It has has since been replaced by the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas). This oil on canvas painting is in the care of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland.

France produces about 130,000 to 145,000 metric tons of Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) annually. Additionally the French produce about 1,000 to 3,000 metric tons of European oysters (Ostrea edulis).

As oysters go, the French have long been the undisputed leader in all of Europe. Not only do the French produce the lion share of the oysters in Europe, they are also their own best customers. More than 90% of the oysters produced in France are consumed by the French. The French oyster business traditionally starts booming between Christmas and New Year's Day. About 50% of the annual oyster production is consumed during this time.

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