Dating back since Roman times, Arcachon Bay has been renowned for its oysters. This pretty coastal town on the Bassin d’Arcachon is a leisurely short boat ride away from Bordeaux, and home to some of the most beautiful beaches in France. A large proportion of the country’s 130,000-ton oyster harvest is produced in the Arcachon Bay, a tidal estuary that provides an outlet to the sea for the Dordogne and Garonne rivers.
During our Best of Bordeaux experience, we invite guests on an invitation-only discovery of the bay, meeting oyster farmers and tasting some of the freshest and plumpest oysters in the area. Therefore, we thought it might be helpful to offer a little extra information on these precious delicacies before you travel, including some insightful farming secrets that you might not be aware of…
Oyster farming through the seasons
Cap Ferret is a narrow strip of land between the Bay of Arcachon and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s here that a large part of France’s oyster harvest is produced. You can sail close to the oyster farms during low tide, and even see some of the flat bottom oyster boats out collecting the day’s fresh catch of Cap Ferret oysters.
Cultivating oysters is a fine art that is punctuated largely by nature and the changing seasons. The local farmers in Arcachon benefit from the unique geography of the bay, as well as the moderate temperatures, rainfall, sunshine, inflow of fresh water, and salinity levels, which make the oyster beds so rich and plentiful.
During the spring months, the oyster farmers place collectors in the sea, which take many forms, but specifically in Arcachon include tiles coated with a mixture of lime, sand, and sawdust. Late spring is when the oysters grow, sticking to the collectors, before beginning to ripen and reproduce in the summer months. Autumn is when the oysters are detached from the collectors to give them more room to grow, and then winter is when the farmers sort the oysters they have harvested by their size – ready for the Christmas season when the oysters are especially popular.
The two types of oyster
There are two distinct types of oyster: the diploid and the triploid.
The diploid oyster is born at sea. It has been bred and then captured in a natural environment for up to three years. This is the type of oyster that lives according to the rhythm of the seasons, observes nature, and adapts to its natural surroundings. Diploid oysters will taste very different depending on the seasons they are harvested and eaten.
The triploid oyster is born in a hatchery. It has triplets of chromosomes – hence its name – and has been genetically altered using controlled applications of heat, pressure, or chemicals. Triploid oysters are larger in size, because of their manipulation, which makes them grow faster than sea-born oysters, and they also have a consistent taste all year round.
The best times to eat them
According to the experts, the best time to eat oysters is at the end of the year and in the months ending in r - September, October, November and December.
During the earlier summer period, as the oysters are in their reproduction phase, their taste is described as milky. This milky taste is not an indication of any drop in quality, and in fact, many gourmet foodies actually prefer to eat the oyster at this time for this distinct flavour. It’s all a case of taste and preference when it comes to the best time to eat an oyster.
There are several oyster festivals every year on the shores of Arcachon Bay: in Andernos-les-Bains and Lanton in July, and in Gujan-Mestras and Arès in August. Again, we can organise tickets for you if you are travelling during these times, so you can experience these gastronomic celebrations for yourself.
The best ways to eat them
The port and oyster-farming villages of Arcachon Bay are full of little huts where you can enjoy the simple, authentic pleasure of tasting fresh oysters on the spot, with your feet in the water.
Oysters are classified on a size system from 5 – 0 (with size 5 being the smallest oyster). The biggest oysters are thought to be best used for cooking or stuffing, while for eating raw, sizes 3 – 4 are known for being the best.
There is also another index rating that indicates the filling of the oyster. It is calculated on the basis of 100 times the ratio of the mass of 20 cupped oysters compared to the mass of flesh from these same oysters. ‘Fine’ oysters have an index that varies between 6.5 and 10.5, while ‘special’ oysters have an index greater than 10.5. The fine oysters, which will have been raised for less time than the special oysters, will therefore be less fleshy and vice versa.
Raw oysters can be eaten plain or with a squeeze of lemon or vinegar. In a restaurant, they will generally be served on a bed of seaweed and crushed ice. In Gironde during the holiday season, it is also traditional to serve oysters accompanied by crépinettes - a type of small, local flattened sausage, which offers a complimentary flavour and texture to the oyster.
In our view, fewer things are finer than sitting with a stellar view of the bay, a plate of freshly shucked oysters, some crusty French bread and a glass of white Bordeaux!
As an ultra-fresh product, oysters do not like going on long trips and so are best eaten on the day. However, if you are planning on buying some oysters to take back with you to your châteaux or villa, then they can be consumed within 10 days provided you put them in the bottom of your fridge in the basket that the oyster farmer provides (as he will have them perfectly wedged together so that they do not lose their water.)
If all this talk of oysters and white wine has put you in the mood for a discovery trip of France, then let us start planning your journey. All out trips can be customised and our team members are ready and waiting to inspire you.
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