This summer, oyster farming has experienced a serious crisis in all of Europe, but one of the hardest hit areas is in France between Bordeaux and La Rochelle: the Marennes-Oleron area.

Here, the oyster has a distinctive taste, a one-hundred year tradition and a real economic role. Reporting by Florence Maitre.

We are right in the middle of August and while others are enjoying vacation, the anxious oyster fishermen are dumping by the truckload, tons of empty oyster shells outside the Prefecture, the symbol of the State.

Didier, an oyster fisherman in Marennes wants help, but that’s not all.

– What’s happening is that we are a bit angry because for several years now the oysters have died and no one is telling us why. That’s a big problem for us. We don’t know what we are going to do in the future. Personally last year, I lost 60% and now, this year, I’m losing 50%. So… that’s a lot. What’s more, the prices are not going up, the demand isn’t there, sales are weak, you see.

The young oysters that die: the problem arises each year, but this summer 2008, some farms have lost all of their young oysters. The source of the problem is a disease, brought on by heavy rainfall; the cause of which scientists ended up discovering. In Charente-Maritime, the concern is strong in these moments of crisis because the oysters provide work for 30,000 people. The Department has 40% of the French companies in this business. And it is not the first crisis as Philippe Labrousse of the regional shell fishing organisation explains.

– We’re in the process of revitalizing the same operation of twenty years ago: many localized mortalities took place in Ronce-les-Bains in 1988 and then they had to lose one job in twenty to get going again. And then they escaped lightly. They got started again painfully. The problem is that it is all the areas, everyone has been affected, it’s much more serious; there isn’t an emergency escape.

The oysters in this area are a very old tradition. You only have to walk along the rivers, the Charente or the Seudre to see these special areas where we mature the oysters. We call them beds. These areas are dredged in the estuaries, where the salt and fresh water mixes. This story is being told by Roger Cougot. He has created an association “Oyster Studies” to value the marsh areas and the traditional know-how. For the beds, everything started with the salt workers, the people who were harvesting salt.

– Well the salt workers had built dykes for a very long time, since medieval times, dykes to contain their salt pans. To restore these dykes, from time to time, they used to dredge on the outside of the dykes on the foreshore; they used to dredge holes, holes full of water that they used to call keepers. Why keepers? Because they used to put the shells there, that was in effect their pantry. And they used to put in there, among other things, oysters. They noticed that the oysters which had stayed in the keepers a month or more, or two months or more, were much better than the oysters which they used to collect on the natural banks. They said to themselves: “Why not develop it and make a business from it, a complementary business?” In the same way that they used to cultivate dry land, they set about dredging out the first beds. It was like that, quite fortuitously, that the beds started. So quite quickly, people set about doing that as their profession. They were called oystermen. And that developed a lot as the records, the reports of Claude Masse, the hydrographic engineer of Louis XIV in the 1700s, in the 18th century, at the beginning of the 18th century counted already 7000 beds on the banks of the left side of the Seudre. So it was already very important and there were at that time quite a lot of people who were making use of oysters, who were shaping the true oyster culture. They did not use the word oyster culture but it was really cultured oysters. The association “Oyster Studies” based in Mornac-sur-Seudre keeps its little stock of oysters for giving demonstrations. Its members dredge and maintain the beds. They have also seen most of the little oysters die, as big as hazelnuts, at the beginning of the summer. Roger Cougot:

– The fact that the big oysters have not been affected, that does reassure us a bit, somewhere. But we’re still concerned, and that concern is part of our big worry about forms of pollution that we don’t know about. For example, the pollutants which come down with the rain in the rivers, which come down from the farmlands; we know that intensive agriculture uses a lot of chemical products which can be detrimental, which can be dangerous, that has been the case for a long time for maize from Atrazine for example, which has now been prohibited for two years but there is still a lot of it on the land. And so, some products like that can leak quite gently and consequently cause a little change to the environment in conjunction with the rest of the climatic vagaries, you see what I’m trying to say? A string of factors like that, the more this pollution spreads… and unfortunately we do not have a lot of tests on the fresh water which comes down the rivers and it is there maybe today that we ought today to pay attention to know exactly what is the quality of the water which comes down the water paths, the quality of the fresh water.

In spite of these repeated crises, the oysters of Marennes-Oleron still have their faithful customers, notably among the great chefs. Jean-Yves Homo, head chef and regional representative of the National Academy of Gastronomy:

– It is true that the oysters from here have this sort of nutty taste which others do not have. So after they have been matured, in the farms, in the oyster farms, where in effect fresh water is brought in, it’s that which gives a little special aspect to the oysters of Marennes-Oleron.

– Does that change something in your way of preparing them?

– Oh, of course, because they are already a little less salty, so they are a little bit more full-bodied and when they’re cooked, they are a bit chewy and that is very enjoyable. And they have a very distinctive flavour. So there are a lot of recipes for oysters. You can brown them, you can poach them in sauce, in white wine, in Champagne, in one of the Charente regions of course you can wrap them in a little pork belly, you can really do a lot of things with oysters!

The tourists are fond of sea food, but it is not the dish of raw oysters which is the greatest success at the Atelier Gourmand restaurant which Jean-Yves Homo keeps near Saintes, in Thenac.

One of the dishes which is the most requested, no, because there’s an advantage here: you can stop next to Marennes, buy a dozen oysters at a road-side stall then eat them from an open box with the beach out in front of you. That’s well worth it for those who know how to open them of course. So mush so that in the restaurant there is not strong demand. But there is strong demand for cooked dishes with oysters. Yes indeed. We see in effect that when we put cooked oysters on the menu they’re asked for more because people are more in the habit of eating oysters in this way rather than raw.

The type of dish which people like a lot at the end of the year: one French person in two eats oysters during the festive season, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. So the biggest period starts now for the oyster companies. They do on average 40% of their business takings in December.

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