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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Oyster Capital of France

Today we arrived in oyster nirvana.  Since ancient times, oysters have been very popular along France’s southwest coast not far from the town of Bordeaux.  The Romans, who were supposedly so enamored with oysters that they sent thousands of slaves to the Atlantic beaches to gather them, paid for these mollusks by their weight in gold.  By the time of Emperor Napoleon III in the 19th century, however, oysters were nearly wiped out.  Concerned, Napoleon set up a plan to ensure the species’ survival.

One of the elements in Napoleon’s plan was farms for the oysters….these farms still exist today and are located in the gigantic Aracahon Bay.  Over 50% of France’s oysters come from this bay.  Considering the long love affair with the French of these morsels from the sea, that’s beaucoup. (It is said that Marie Antoinette ordered carriage loads full of them sent on a regular basis to Versailles; also claimed is that Henry IV ate 300 oysters regularly as an apéritif.)   

On my first visit to this area in 2004, I’ll never forget walking along the Bay when the tide was out and being astounded to see huge collections of curved tiles that looked like they had been taken off someone’s roof.  The tile perimeter was surrounded by large poles that were 10 feet high.  At the time I did not realize that I was looking at oyster farms.  These tiles, apparently, are the perfect object in which oyster larvae attaches and grows.  The poles were there to signal boaters when the tide came in to avoid this area.

France is Europe’s largest producer of oysters and the industry, like wine, has huge economic implications for the Bordeaux area.  The oyster business was all but wiped out in the early1970’s when a disease killed most of the mollusks.  Just when things began to return to normal, there was a severe issue with the oysters that had survived---they were not re-producing.  The culprit for the later issue was environmental:  marine paint that was used on most boats in the bay contained an ingredient (TBT) that is known today as being one of the most toxic environmental poisons.  It has been since been outlawed in the area.

To add further insult to injury, the Bay of Arcachon took a huge hit from the disastrous oil spill of the super-tanker Cadiz in 1978 off the coast of France.  Many oyster growers simply went out of business after this third insult and the industry almost collapsed.  The French government stepped in and provided generous financial subsidies for the oyster growers on the Bay.  Today, the industry seems to be making a comeback.

Tonight we’ll be dining on a platter of oysters and washing them down with a bottle of white Graves from nearby Bordeaux….a marriage made in heaven!

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