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Oysters of the French Mediterranean
John McCabe

The French also cultivate oysters in the Mediterranean region. In the French province Languedoc, very close to the Mediterranean Sea, there is a large, land-locked salt lake called "Bassin de Thau". On a map, it can easily be located between the towns of Beziers and Montpellier. The lake area is quite tranquil. In the summer it can get so hot that you might consider having an oyster fry right on the hood of your car. There are no big tidal zones. The last thing an unsuspecting traveler would likely expect in a place like this is oyster cultivation. As it turns out, the Bassin de Thau is a major oyster production area - and has been for more than a hundred years. Near the lake's shores there are several important little oyster towns: Mèze, Marseillan, Sète, and, most important of all, Bouzigue. Not only does this area produce lots of delicious oysters (approx. 13,000 metric tons annually), it is also famous for cultivating both the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and the European oyster (Ostrea edulis). Approximately 90% of the oysters produced are Pacific oysters.

Closer inspection of this saline lake reveals it as most suitable for growing oysters. For starters, this little land-locked sea is actually rather large. It is about 13 miles (21 km) long, 5 miles (8 km) wide, and covers 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares). The Bassin de Thau is rather shallow. Its depth rarely exceeds 16 feet (5 meters). The salty lake is fed with fresh ground water from big chalky hills located in the Northwest. The shallow water mix benefits from a warm climate and plenty of sunshine. This turns this little sea into a huge bowl of nutritious "micro-algae soup" - the kind oysters just love to consume.

However, there is a little cultivation problem. There are no tidal currents to speak of to carry all the tasty micro-algae conveniently past the gills of the oysters. To offset this, the oyster cultivators of the Bassin de Thau implement two rather unique line cultivation techniques called "Collées" and "Pignes".

The Collées method describes the process of gluing many young oysters individually to a rope with a type of fast setting mortar. The "oyster lines" are then hung from big wooden racks out in the salt lake. This method ultimately produces fat, well formed oysters. They are then cut from the line and the remaining cement is ground off. The Pignes method describes another form of line cultivation, whereby plain oyster shells populated naturally with oyster babies are treaded into a line at intervals. It is essentially the same method we call "longline cultivation" - except that the line is not strung out horizontally, but hangs (vertically) in the water. The suspended lines of both methods terminate just above the bottom, thus keeping the oysters safe from predators and preventing fouling of the oysters by mud. The oysters on these hanging lines benefit from some water movement caused by the winds Tramontane (the "North Wind"), a cool and fresh winter wind from the mountains, and Mistral, another cool, dry wind that blows in from the north.

A large French island called Corsica is located in the western part of the Mediterranean Sea (just north of the Isle of Sardinia). The birthplace of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is well known for its rugged beauty, wine, olive oil, citrus fruit, and an abundance of tourists from everywhere. Corsica is a very unique island. It features the highest mountains and the most streams of any Mediterranean island. Since Roman times it has also been known for its oysters. The Romans used to haul boatloads of European oysters from a big bay by the name of Étang de Diane (covers approx. 1,500 acres or 600 hectares). Two more large bays, Étang d'Urbinu (or "Urbino"; approx. 1,850 acres/750 ha) and Étang de Biguglia ( approx. 4,324 acres/1,750 ha) are also known for oyster cultivation.

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