Oysters.us - Spat Perceptions Introduction

Oysters of Marennes-Oléron
John McCabe

The world-famous oyster cultivation area Marennes-Oléron is located on the coast of the French region Charente-Maritime. It reaches from the estuary of the Charente River, across the Isle of Oléron ("Ile d'Oléron"), further south to Marennes and its vicinity, all the way down to the estuary of the Gironde River.

Marennes-Oléron is by far the largest oyster cultivation area in all of Europe. The combined growing and refinement area covers approximately 15,000 acres (approx. 6,000 hectares). Annually, anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 metric tons of oysters are produced here. The production accounts for approximately 45% of the entire French oyster industry.

Marennes-Oléron region is truly an amazing place, not just in terms of wonderful oysters, but for a number of other reasons. The area has always been a favorite destination for countless tourists from all across Europe. Plenty of hotels, vacation homes and lots of camping opportunities abound. The whole family, both young and old, is certain to experience a most fulfilling vacation by the seashore. Located pretty far down the French Atlantic Coast, the climate is usually mild and offers plenty of sunshine. The locals are known for their friendly and laid back disposition.

South of Marennes, a valley called "Valleé de la Seudre" is situated. The estuary of the Seudre River has historically always been important - not just in terms of oysters, but also for salt. Old salt mining flats, so called "Marais salants", exist in this area. The salt from these salt flats was once a most precious commodity in France. In the 17th century, the brilliant French Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619 – 1683), had many stone buildings built all over France, where armed guards would watch over the salt stored within. Salt was essential to the fishing industry for the purpose of preserving many types of fish (particularly cod) for extended periods of time. It was not uncommon for French fishing vessels of the 18th century to spend many months at sea before ever returning to port. Once exploited, the salt mining flats were abandoned. The vast marshy areas which had been excavated in the pursuit of salt started filling up with brackish water. The lanscape was was soon dotted with big pools of water.

Centuries ago, oystermen took note of these big, shallow water pools where algae flourished abundantly. They found that oysters relished this nutritious "soup". The oystermen proceeded to level and partition the flooded salt flats into diked "water parcels". In turn, these parcels (called "claires") were connected with a network of canals leading to nutritious brackish marine water. The canals flood or drain these shallow parcels which are generally only about 1.5 to 2 feet (approx. 50 cm) deep. Only rarely are these compounds bigger than about 1,500 ft² (approx. 500 m²) and are usually surrounded by low walls, dikes of sorts, possibly made of compacted soil, wood, or cement. Since the days of old, many more "claires" have been dug in this valley and other areas of Marennes-Oléron, not for purposes of finding salt of course, but purely for oyster refinement purposes. Looking through the window of a plane, the "claires" of Marennes-Oléron down below look like (more or less) symmetrically arranged fields, square or rectangular, much like the fields on conventional farmland. Many of these refinement plots are located in and around La Tremblade, Arvet, Etaules, Chaillevette, Mornac, and Nieulle-sur-Seudre.

Safely tucked away behind Oléron Island there lies a huge bay. The Pacific oyster loves this place immensely and rewards the oyster growers with excellent growth rates. Unlike in the many, more northerly located oyster cultivation areas in France and Europe, the oysters in this area get very amorous every year. This leads to countless new "Naissins" (what we call "oyster babies, spat, seed oysters"). Hence, two oyster industries have evolved, one for growing and refining oysters for the market, and another for growing and harvesting oyster seed which, in turn, is sold to oyster growers in the North where Pacific oyster reproduction is only occasional at best.

Inset image: A pretty trademark of the oyster trade around Marennes-Oléron are the rows of little work buildings, all painted in different colors. Some still double as living quarters for oystermen and their families. A building of this type is called "Chai à trier".

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Health advisory: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.

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© 2014 John W. McCabe