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French Terms


Oysters of Northern Brittany
John McCabe

In terms of oysters, the coastal area of northern Brittany starts around the famous cloister Mont Saint Michel and stretches all the way to the City of Brest. The most significant cultivation areas in this stretch of coast are located in Cancale, St-Brieuc, Carantec, Paimpol, Tréguier, the Bay of Morlaix, Les Abers ("the little Fjords"), and the waters around Brest.

Not far from the famous cloister Mont-Saint-Michel, there is a little coastal town called Cancale. Although Cancale might be considered fairly small as towns go, it is a giant town when it comes to oysters. Considered by many oyster lovers "the true oyster capital of the world", it is, at the very least, most certainly the oyster capital of all of Brittany. This is where Louis XIV., often remembered as the "sun king", usually preferred to order his oysters. Riders on fast horses would deliver his fresh oysters directly to his royal palace, Versailles. Today, many of the finest restaurants in Paris insist on oysters only from Cancale. The town is loaded with lots of quaint little restaurants. Excellent food is served there. This area is famous not only for its oysters, but also for superb lamb dishes and an array of fine wines. Down at the Bay of Cancale, an oyster lover is welcomed by a good number of oyster vendors, offering copious amounts of fresh oysters to the general public at reasonable prices. Whatever an oyster lover's heart might desire, at least one of the vendors will have it. Pacific oysters ("Creuses") are available in any size, from little "slurpers" right on up to the so called "Sauvages", the "wild ones", which designates huge Pacific oysters. They are unsuitable for slurping off the half shell, as they would choke the proverbial horse (hence only suited for cooking). European oysters are also available. Historically, European oysters ("Plates") are Brittany's claim to fame. Even so called "Pied de Cheval" can be bought. These are big European oysters that somehow managed to to live to a ripe old age. They were overlooked by harvesters for years and spared the ravages of oyster diseases. Despite their age, they are most tender and highly tasty. The meat of oysters does not get "tough" with age - it just gets bigger. The vendors down by the water will gladly open any oyster for a small fee. Oyster lovers can then walk off with their plastic plate full of fresh oysters - ready to be slurped on a bench or sitting on a low wall overlooking the bay. Heaven!

Image: A post card from the early 20th century depicting oystermen and women tending to their oysters. It is titled "Le Lavage des Huîtres" ("The washing of oysters."). Looks like some potential buyers may have arrived. Please note the boarded perimeter of each holding area in the inter-tidal zone, another form of "claires". Click to enlarge.

The oyster cultivation area of Cancale is enormous. Tidally it is also quite unique. At approx. 30 feet, it has one of the largest tidal mean ranges in the world. This translates into most active tidal flow, carrying nutrients past the hungry "mouths" of countless oysters almost continuously.

Besides the cultivation of Pacific oysters in the inter-tidal zone, many growers also cultivate European oysters in the sub-tidal zone. At a depth of anywhere from 10 to 40 feet, they are grown either on the ocean bottom (traditional bottom cultivation) or suspended in plastic cages (modern suspended cultivation). Whatever European oyster cultivation method is chosen, it is always associated with high costs (and great risks) for the growers. First, young (seed) oysters (so called Naissins) are procured either from marine laboratories or natural collectors. The young oysters are then spread in a designated marine plot (or placed in the suspended cages). Unlike the Pacific oyster, the European oyster grows more slowly, commanding an extra year or two to reach marketable size. Much can happen to the grower's European oysters during this time. If he is growing them on the ocean floor, a storm might pick up and shift some (or all) of his stock to some place unknown. The European oyster is also highly susceptible to (at least) two serious oyster diseases (Martellia refringens, Bonamia ostrea). Bottom cultivators thus rotate their growing areas. Areas, where an oyster disease has struck, are generally quarantined for a few seasons. The growers also watch the density of the oyster seed in a particular plot. High density would aid the rapid spread of an oyster disease and could also create an excessively competitive environment for available nutrients.

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