The Passion
18th & 19th Century
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Belle Epoque
20th Century

French Terms

French Terms
John McCabe

Note: This listing of French terms associated with the oyster business is not to be considered a definitive list on the topic. It may also contain some terms which are no longer commonly used. I'm still looking for someone at IFREMER or a French oysterman who might speak English and be kind enough to help me review and possibly expand this listing.

Ambulance (d'Huitres)
The term describes a shallow rectangular cultivation cabinet, usually made of wood. A matching wood frame with meshing of some sort serves as a lid. The box is placed into the shallow tidal zone and serves as a nursery for baby oysters which have been damaged during their removal from collection tiles. The meshing allows nutritious water in and keeps predators out. Historically, the use of this type of cultivation box is associated with the Arcachon Bay.

"Affinage" means "refinement" and describes an additional step in the French cultivation process. Usually oysters of marketable size are collected and placed into a special feeding environment. This could possibly be a refinement compound (called a "claire") or a certain river estuary. The duration of 'affinage" can vary from weeks to months. Most areas in France have strict rules associated with 'affinage". See also report "Affinage"

Au grand air
Conditioning of the abductor muscles of oysters in special basins before shipment. In the course of about 10 days, the water level is lowered and raised artificially to teach the oysters to forget the rhythm of their natural tidal environment. Once they get used to being exposed to the 'fresh air" (or "grand air"), they will stay shut longer during transport and retain their freshness better. Also known as "trompage".

Belon (Bélon)
By far the most famous name in the oyster world. It designates European oysters which have been refined in the estuary of the Belon River in southern Brittany.

A special basket with a lid, often made of thin wood slats or wicker, for shipping oysters. The size varies. Depending on size, some can hold 100 - 144 oysters. A mandatory certificate indicating origin, quantity, size, and weight is attached.

French weights and measures system for oysters. Pacific oysters and European oysters are rated differently:

Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas)

Nummer 5 4 3 2 1 0
Abb. P M M G TG TG
Weight 30-45g 46-65g 66-85g 86-110g 111-150g 150g+

Abbreviation key:
"P": Petit (small)
"M": Moyen (medium)
"G": Grand (large)
"TG": Très Grand (very large)

European oysters (Ostrea edulis)
Nummer 4 3 2 1 0 00
Abb. P M M M G TG






Particularly large European oysters: "000" = 110g, "0000" =120g, "00000" = 150g ... and more.

Younger oysters which grow on the flat (right) valve of marketable oysters. As they often can't be removed without destroying one or the other oyster. French growers find them undesirable. American growers sometimes call these oysters "jockeys".

Captage describes the deliberate effort of oystermen to capture oyster babies on special collectors. Tile, PVC-pipe, wooden posts, oyster shells etc. can be used. Arcachon and Marennes-Oléron are of great commercial importance in this endeavor. See also report on "Captage".

Chai à trier
A typical French work building for oyster growers. At times it may double as living quarters as well. The Marennes-Oléron area is particularly famous for this type of building. Rows of work buildings, each building painted in a different color, creates a beautiful sight.

Chaulage describes a special process of coating ridge tiles with a quicklime mixture. The tiles are used to capture oyster babies. See also report on "Captage".

A generic term describing large water basins used in the cultivation process of oysters. Claires can have a number of important functions. Marennes-Oléron is particularly famous for its claires. See also the report on "Claires" as well as "Affinage".

Materials used specifically for the capture of oyster babies. The most famous "collecteurs" are coated ridge tiles. See "captage" and report on "captage"

A surveyed oyster bed leased from the respective province or French government.

The term describes anything and everything associated with the cultivation of shellfish.

Canals of varying size which aid in the filling and draining of cultivation compounds.

Couteau à huître
Oyster knife

Colloquial term for the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas). Another colloquial name for the Pacific oyster is "Japonaise". Since about the mid 1970s, the Pacific oyster is by far (more than 90%) the principal oyster cultivated and sold in France (or Europe for that matter). For abot 100 years before that time, the Portuguese oyster (Crassostrea angulata) was the principal oyster grown and traded. During that century, it was also called a "creuse" (or "Portugaise"). Between the years 1968 and 1972, an oyster disease devastated the Portuguese oyster in European waters.

A mechanical sieve or strainer which helps sort different oyster baby sizes.

Culture des huîtres
Oyster cultivation.
The three main cultivation methods used in France are:
* Ground cultivation: "Culture au sol" in the inter-tidal or sub-tidal zone. "En eau profonde" usually describes cultivation in deeper water in the sub-tidal zone with boats and dredges.
* "Rack and bag": "Surélevé" ("raised higher").
Oysters in special synthetic mesh bags (called "poches") are grown out on steel racks in the tidal zone.
* Suspended cultivation: "Suspendu" or "Elevage sur cordes".
Describes a number of techniques such as synthetic mesh cages hanging from rafts or floats (European oyster). "Elevage sur cordes" describes what we call "longline cultivation". While in American cultivation the "longlines" with oysters are usually stretched out across a series of posts horizontally, they hang vertically in the French region "Bassin de Thau" from wooden racks. See also "Mediterranean".

The term "dégorgeoir" or "bassin dégorgeoir" usually describes a shallow rectangular basin made of concrete. It accomodates many steel or plastic baskets with oysters, which are filtering clear water to expell any kind of impurities (sand, mud...) and will soon be shipped. These basins are another form of "claire".

"Dedoublement" is an important (and tedious) step in the "rack and bag" cultivation process, whereby the contents of a mesh bag full of oysters ("poche') are removed and redistributed into two or three new mesh bags (or "poches"). Over time, all the oysters in a "poche" naturally grow out and this mesh bag gets increasingly cramped for space. This encourages shell deformities and also compromises the oysters' ability to feed. "Dédoublement" or "parting out" the "poche" simply gives the oysters the necessary "elbow room" to live and grow out favorably.

"Détroquage" describes separating oyster babies from a substrate such as coated tiles. The traditional hand method requires much skill. Mechanical equipment is also used for détroquage. See also report on "Captage".

Traditional name for European oysters (Ostrea edulis) from the Arcachon Bay. Alternative colloquial name for European oysters is "Plates".

Only two kinds are found in French fish markets: the Pacific oyster and the European oyster. They are easily qualified as one or the other. The Pacific oyster tends to be oval with a roughly ribbed shell. One half of the shell looks distincly "hollowed out" or bellied, while the other looks rather flat like a lid. If the sign says "creuse" (which means "hollowed out") it's definitely a Pacific oyster. The European oyster looks rather flat and often (hardly always) somewhat round. The shell looks comparatively smooth. If the sign says "plate" (which means "flat") it's definitely a European oyster. If all else fails, the price tag will often tell the difference, as the European oyster will cost twice (or possibly three times) as much as the Pacific oyster. Inset image: The oyster on the left is a Pacific oyster. The oyster on the right is a European oyster.

See "Creuse".

Practical work baskets (often square or rectangular) made of steel or plastic which facilitate moving oysters around for sorting, placement in claires, moving empty shells etc.. An oysterman never has enough "mannes". For an image of older style "mannes' full of oyster shells click here.

Oyster baby (babies). See report on "Naissains"

Oyster farmer(s) or oyster grower(s).

A number of oysters which have grown together as a clump. These clumps are sometimes also called "Pignes" (pine cones).

Parqueur(s) d'huitres
Oyster farmer(s) or oyster grower(s). Alternative name for Ostréiculteur(s).

Parqueuse(s) d'huitres
Female oyster farmer(s) or oyster growers.

Pied de cheval
"Pied de cheval" ("horse hoof") describes a particularly large (old) European oyster. Old European oysters can get quite heavy, some weighing 10 oz or more (weights up to 3 lb are known). They are somewhat rare and quite desirable. They are usually harvested by dredging. Approx. 100 -150 metric tons are harvested in France annually (primarily in Brittany and Normandy). France additionally imports approx. 150 metric tons of these monsters from Spain and Great Britain annually.

A wood post serving as a boundry marker on an oyster bed.

A "pinasse" describes a small sail boat design which served French oystermen for centuries as an important work boat. They were about 20 to 30 feet long, narrow, flat bottomed, with a round stern, usually equipped with one mast (occasionally also two), no jib, a center board at times and a rudder, with plenty carrying capacity for oysters. If the oystermen happened to get stuck in a prolonged wind lull, they could return to shore by paddle. Pinasses are now valuable collectibles and are often lovingly restored and cared for by their owners. These beautiful little crafts, although once used by ostermen in varios regions of France, were particularly common in the Arcachon Bay. Incidentally, Connecticut was the birth place of a strikingly similar oyster sail boat design called "sharpie". It was ideally suited for tonging. A Mr. James Goodsell invented sharpies in 1848. Personal note: I desperately need a picture a Pinasse and/or a Sharpie to show off here at

Colloquially refers to a European oyster (Ostrea edulis). The "huître plate" was once the mainstay of the French oyster industry. Centuries of over-harvesting reduced its numbers drastically by the 1850s, resulting in spectacular French oyster cultivation efforts led by the famous naturalist Coste (see also report on "Coste"). In the 1970s, two oyster diseases (Martellia refringens, Bonamia ostrea) took a terrible toll on the remaining stocks. Today, the European oyster accounts for a mere 1 - 4% of total French oyster production. European oysters are highly desirable. Although they are considerably more expensive than the Pacific oyster, there is never a shortage of buyers.

Plate (2)
The term "plate" also describes a common French oyster work boat. Inset image: A typical "plate" with shallow-draft hull and lots of work space on deck. Ideal also for stacking many "poches" (picture of a plate stacked with poches here).

A "poche" is a synthetic mesh grow out bag for oysters. The "poches", filled with oysters, are laid out on low steel racks in the tidal zone. The "rack and bag" cultivation method was invented in France. Word has it that an enterprising oysterman in Normandy utilized abandoned field bed frames after WW II as racks in the tidal zone and placed bags of oysters on them for grow out. "Rack and bag" is the dominant cultivation method in France. It is also practiced on a large scale by oyster growers on the U.S. and Canadian West Coast (on a limited scale on the East Coast as well). Although the basic concept of the "rack and bag" method is simple, the proper execution of this cultivation method is labor intensive and requires quite a bit of know-how. It will be discussed in detail in the cultivation section of at a later date.

Colloquial name for the Portuguese oyster. Also see "Creuse" above.


A "sauvage" (a "wild one" or "savage") designates a very large Pacific oyster. Unlike its counterpart among the European oysters, the "Pied de Cheval" (see above), a "sauvage" is quite common and inexpensive along the coast of France. Although they are too big for slurping off the half shell, they are nonetheless tasty and tender oysters, ideally suited for many recipes. You can view some "sauvages" here . The "little" oyster in the picture is about 3.5" long.

Table à caire-voie (Tables à claire-voie surélevées)
"Table a caire-voie" are the low steel racks upon which mesh bags of oysters (or so called "poches") are placed fro grow out in the tidal zone. Basic concrete reinforcing bar (rebar) properly welded together works well and is commonly used. The bags usually end up sitting on these racks about 20' to 24" (approx. 50 - 60 cm) above the ground. The length varies - 9 to 10 feet (approx. 3 m) is common.

See "Au grand air" above.


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