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Oysters of Southern Brittany
John McCabe

In terms of oysters, the coastal region of southern Brittany starts in the Bay of Douarnenez and reaches all the way south to the estuary of the Loire River. This constitutes a very large coastal region with many bays, as well as lots of rivers and streams. Simply put: The oysters love it here! Some of the big oyster cultivation names in this region are Belon (Aven, Bélon and Merrien), Rivière d'Etel, Quiberon, Golfe du Morbihan, Pernef and Croisic.

No other oyster name in the world is more famous than "Belon". This is likely the reason why a few growers and dealers of European oysters in the United States market them as "Belons". It just sounds so "noble and luxurious". Of course, the only thing a European oyster grown in American waters has in common with a "Belon" is that they are both the same species: Ostrea edulis. Although the term has become rather diluted even in France, classic Belons can only originate from the brackish estuary of the Belon River in France, or more precisely, a dreamy little town on its banks called Riec-sur-Bélon.

On a map, Riec-sur-Bélon is located about 3 miles (5 km) south of the Port Pont-Aven. About two miles further down the road, at the little Port of Belon, the River Belon meets a bay. There are five major oyster cultivators located in Riec-sur-Bélon, which utilize about 60 acres (25 hectares) along a stretch of the Belon River about 3 miles long. Despite the relatively small size of this cultivation area, its annual production volume has been estimated at a staggering 5,000 metric tons. That's a lot of oysters for this small cultivation area! How could this possibly be? There is a rather simple explanation. Although Pacific oysters are actually grown there, most of the European oysters in this river's estuary are not. They come from elsewhere and are here to be refined into classic "Belons". You see, the waters of the Belon River could be considered "French oyster holy water" of sorts. This stretch of the river is extremely rich in nutrients and features a unique mix of special minerals, which rapidly change, or, as many oyster lovers are convinced, actually improve the taste an oyster. Any happy oyster will incessantly filter the water around it. Once transplanted, within just a few weeks of siphoning all that plankton and the trace minerals found in its new marine environment, an oyster will look and taste, as if it has lived in that spot all its life.

The French call the transplanting of oysters into a special environment for the purpose of improving taste, meat weight, and/or look, "Affinage" ("refinement"). It is a step beyond what the French call "Elevage", which refers to growing oyster babies to a marketable size over the course of years. Hence, the European oysters in the Belon River estuary are spending a fairly brief amount of time in an "oyster resort" of sorts. There they sit uncrowded, just a few per square meter, so each one can filter as much Belon water as possible.

Close by, there is a quaint place called "Château de Belon", where travellers can either buy delicious "Huîtres plates de Bélon" (locally refined European oysters) or locally grown Pacific oysters ("Huîtres creuses"). Camping is also possible in this beautiful area.

A little further south along the Brittany Coast, the traveling oyster lover will discover four more important cultivation areas in close proximity to each other: The Etel River ("La rivière d'Etel"), the Quiberon Peninsula ("Presqu'ile de Quiberon"), the Gulf of Morbihan, and the estuary of the Pénerf River.

The oyster cultivation area La rivière d'Etel is a large and unusual river estuary, which could almost pass as a land-locked sea. Fine oysters were cultivated here as early as 1890. Although considerable currents exist, the Pacific oysters don't have the typical "ocean taste", but rather a unique hazel nut flavor. Since this body of water is exceptionally rich in phyto-plankton, the shells of the oysters sometimes feature a distinct greenish hue.

Presqu'ile de Quiberon is also a unique cultivation area. The peninsula reaches way out into the Atlantic. Both Pacific and European oysters feast on the rich marine nutrient base of this area. They delight oyster lovers with a particularly rich "Atlantic ocean taste".

A little further down South, the Gulf of Morbihan holds 365 islands, one for each day of the year. Although this huge bay also appears almost like a land-locked sea, it is intensely subjected to powerful ocean tidal currents, flooding the bay with an abundance of marine plankton. The oysters there also benefit from nutrients provided by many rivers flowing into the bay. The idyllic little town Locmariaquer greets visitors right at the entrance to this magnificent bay.

Also In this area, oysters from the estuary of the Pénerf River have an excellent reputation.

Cruising further south down the Brittany Coast, oyster lovers ultimately reach a land spit called Pte. Du Croisic and the town of Le Croisic. Hidden behind it is a big bay, where terrrific oysters are cultivated. Many French oyster lovers utter the oysters name "La Croisicaise" with utmost respect.

A nice website from this region can be found here:

http://www.labelledugolfe.net

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