Friday, May 25, 2012

Huitres. Oysters in France 1. Ordering, Eating, and Enjoying Oysters. Huitres on French Menus.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

Updated March 2020.
Oysters on the half shell

Ordering, Eating and Enjoying Oysters in France

Huîtres =  Oysters
…… "O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?'
 But answer came there none—

And this was scarcely odd because they'd eaten every one.
From The Walrus and The Carpenter
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) 1832 -1898
Huître (L')   The oyster; the oysters on your menu in France, with very few exceptions, all are farmed oysters. 
When first ordering oysters in France you will quickly learn that there are only two species of oysters on offer; the European or plate oyster and the Pacific or Creuse, Japonaise oyster. These two oysters provide a very wide variety of tastes and textures. Eating, enjoying and ordering oysters in France; however, takes a small amount of background knowledge.  
Ordering oysters is not difficult but read this post before you place your first order. This post notes the factors that affect the taste, the texture, the size and so the costs that should be considered when ordering French oysters.  The differences in sizes and weights are the subject of a separate post.  Huitres - Oysters II. How Fresh Oysters, in France, are Sold by Weight -
Creuse Oysters, also called the Pacific or Japonaise,
on the half-shell.
Plate Oysters also called European Oyster
on the half-shell.

The fattening of oysters and the source of their different tastes.         
When an oyster reaches two or three years old.
After reaching two or three years of age, oysters are taken to specific fattening grounds; there for one to four months, they will eat very well and then they will go to the market.  The algae that live in the fattening grounds in river estuaries and saltwater marshes become the oysters' breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and each area produces algae with different tastes.  The algae in each of France's twenty-plus unique oyster fattening grounds provides oysters with different tastes and textures and is graded by experts. The experts taste the oysters, not the algae!

Visiting an oyster farm
French diners eat more oysters per-capita than any other nation. Many factors affect an oyster's taste, and so the average Frenchman or woman learns the minimum requirements for grading an oyster.  When visitors to France have the time they should visit one of the fattening areas on France's Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, nearly all may be visited.

When you visit an oyster farm, you will learn by sampling and enjoying the local produce some of the factors that affect an oysters grade. Oysters with names like Belon, Isigny, Paimpol, and Oléron will be among the most expensive; these are the names of highly-rated oyster fattening grounds, and each of these areas becomes the oysters' brand. Inside and outside oysters farms are restaurants serving cut-priced oysters and locally caught seafood. If you have time to visit an oyster farm, then including lunch, allow yourself two to two-and-a-half hours. Eating oysters with friends, while accompanied by a good white wine, raise the oysters' grade by a factor of two or three.

Having learned which type of oyster is being offered, and noted the fattening area where the oysters absorbed their different flavors is, regretfully, only part of the information for making a well-informed order. The time an oyster spends on a fattening farm and its access to the food offered will affect the oyster's taste and size. Expect further information about this on your visit.
The three superior grades:

Most oyster fattening areas produce three oyster grades that are above the standard grade that most restaurants offer. Your menu may offer one of these grades.
Fine de Claire - An oyster fattened for approximately one month; it grows fatter along with it friends with no more than 20 oysters per square meter. 
Spéciale de Claire – Highly sort after and expensive oysters; these are very privileged oysters. Spéciale de Claire oysters are fattened in areas with no more than ten oysters per square meter for at least two months; since they have so much space, and they do eat well, they taste and grow accordingly.
Spéciale Pousse en Claire or Pousse en Claire - The highest rating for any oyster; these are the aristocracy of the oyster family, and they practically live in their own dining rooms. These oysters are raised with only five other oysters per square meter and may be fattened for four months. These spéciale pousse en claire oysters will not be inexpensive, but those who know their oysters often consider them to be worth the price.
Oysters on the menu will list additional words or numbers.  Even if the oyster offered is nameless, the menu must note the size.  The size is indicated by numbers, and there are two tables in use, one for each of the two types of oysters that France farms. These lists of sizes are the subject of a separate post. Huitres - Oysters II. How Fresh Oysters, in France, are Sold by Weight
Oysters on sale in a French market.

French oyster farmers finally agreed on three terms that, they claim, that can really describe an oyster’s taste and texture. You occasionally see these terms on a menu. 
 Bien en Chair - A firm texture and a crisp, mild taste
Bien Équilibrées - A balanced taste with a smooth texture.
Bien en Eau- A thinly textured slightly salty taste.

Despite the farmers' agreement, it’s still the restaurant critics, and the restaurants themselves,  who are most likely to influence the public.  When ordering oysters in France, you evaluate all the many different factors, including what the critics say, and then consider the price. After dining, like a fine wine, only you may decide if the price you paid was good value for money.
The European oyster, in France, the huitre verte or plate.
France's local oyster, the European oyster, was originally only collected in the wild; now they are farmed. Overfishing, disease, and other factors nearly completely destroyed the wild oysters; they are no longer allowed to be collected in the wild. The European oyster is also farmed in the UK and Ireland. Among the famous  UK, names are the Colchester, Dorset, and the Whitstable;  the area of fattening is, like in France, considered the determining factor in the taste.  These oyster take their brand name, again like in France, not from a different type of oyster, but from where they are fattened.
(Chinese (Mandarin) 欧洲牡蛎翻, Ōuzhōu mǔlì fānyì), (German – auster), (Hebrew- Ostra - אוסטרא), (Italian - ostrica), (Malay -tiram European),  (Russian - Ostrea гриб- Ostrea g), (Spanish – ostra,ostión). (Latin - ostrea edulis).      
Grilled oysters
The Creuse, Pacific or Japonais oysters.
France's other oyster is the formerly imported, but now home-grown, crinkly-shelled, huître creuse, the Pacific oyster, also called the Japonais in France. These oysters are harvested and fattened just like the European plate oysters.  They are fattened in the same areas where the European oysters are fattened but offer different tastes and textures. They will be on the same menus as the European oyster. The "Japonais" creuse oyster may grow up to 10 cms long.

(Chinese (Mandarin) 太平洋牡蛎 -Tàipíngyáng mǔlì),   (German - Pazifische auster), (Hebrew-ostra Pacific - צדפות פסיפיק), (Italian - ostrica concave, Giapponese), (Malay -tiram Pasifik), (Russian -Тихий устрицы - Tikhiy ustritsy),  (Spanish - ostión Japonés), (Latin - crassostrea gigas).

Oysters and Crabs on a French Family Table.
In addition to the two oysters noted above a few French oyster farms have begun to test farm the Huître de Virginie, the Virginia oyster; if successful that will increase the variety of oysters offered on French menus.
 Ordering oysters in a restaurant.  
 French seafood restaurants cannot offer every type of oyster and every size; the name, the period of fattening, its size and the area of collection would include hundreds of options.   Seafood restaurants offer fresh oysters in at least two sizes and usually offer both species of oysters.  
The way to order oysters and many say the best way to enjoy oysters, will be oysters served on their own, au natural, raw, on the half-shell. They are served without any additions, apart from fresh lemon, maybe some pepper and occasionally Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce or a sauce. When you are enjoying oysters in France, you make your own decisions on what to add or what not to add.
Take the half shell of the oyster in your hand, raise it to your mouth, and just let it slip into your mouth; the restaurant or oyster bar should have cut the oyster free, so it slides out of the shell by gravity. Take a few bites on the way down, and your oyster will have gone, unfortunately, very quickly.  Oysters, their type, their taste, their texture, and their scent is what makes them unique; the larger ones will only take a second or two longer to eat and enjoy them.

                A Sauce Mignonette

Try your oysters with and without some of the additions I noted above; make sure the additions so not overwhelm the natural taste of the oyster.  A few restaurants still offer a sauce mignonette; a sauce mignonette is made with wine, vinegar, shallots, black pepper and a little salt. The sauce mignonette was a traditional sauce and once very popular, only occasionally will it be on the menu today.           

The best times of the year to enjoy oysters
There are a number of traditions that include the buying, serving, and enjoyment of fresh oysters.  You may have dining companions who will know some of the traditional folk wisdom. The most often repeated maxim is that oysters should only be eaten in months with an "R" in their English language name. That means January, February March, April, September, October, November, and December! There are many reasons offered today for these traditions. When oysters spawn that does affect their taste; however oysters spawn over a two to three week period during a three-month season. Restaurants serving oysters will make sure they buy oysters before a farm's particular three-week spawning season and a two-week recovery period.

Today with 99% of all oysters farm-raised, and carefully nurtured, they may indeed be eaten and enjoyed all-year-round.

Fresh lemon juice and oysters.
The popular tradition relates to fresh lemon being essential to the serving of oysters. That is, however, a tradition that relates to a pre-refrigeration test used in restaurants to see if the oysters were still alive when delivered. A drop of lemon juice on an oyster will create visible movement in a live oyster; today the lemon may be added for flavor.

Cat on the half-shell.

Other traditions relate to the pearls that you may find if the oyster is opened in front of you. Unfortunately, for oyster lovers,  the oysters that produce high-quality pearls, as well as the mussels that are used for freshwater cultured pearls, come from very different and distinct oyster and mussel families. I have been told by professionals pearl growers that you would never want to eat the meat of a pearl oyster or mussel; do not even think about it! You may very very occasionally find a small crumbly gray pearl in a delicious oyster but, unfortunately, that will not be a pearl of any value; it's worth will be less than the oyster that produced it.
The Best  Oysters in France. 
Only two French oysters have been awarded the Label Rouge mark of quality, and they are both from the Marennes-Oléron fattening grounds in the region of Poitou-Charente.  These are the only oysters in the world with a merit badge; they are both rated for their consistent taste and the manner in which they are raised.

La Fine de Claire Verte Marennes Oléron, Label Rouge - This red label is given to the European oyster raised in Marennes Oléron where it is fattened for one month.

La Pousseen Claire Label Rouge –This red label was given to the Creuze oyster raised in Marennes Oléron where it is fattened for four months.
Cooked Oysters.
Cooked oyster dishes will also be on seafood restaurant menus; they will include modern and traditional recipes, here are just two examples.
Huîtres Gratinées – Oysters on the half shell baked with white wine and olive oil; usually with a Parmesan cheese topping, lightly grilled before serving. Do not be surprised if the version that your order has the white wine replaced by Noilly Prat, France's first and very famous locally produced vermouth, the Parmesan cheese may also be replaced by Gruyère cheese.  
 Darne de Turbot aux Huîtres - A thick cut of turbot, the fish, served with oysters.      
Oysters as they should be served.
Two dozen at a time.
Huître Bouzigues or Bouzigues – The creuse, Japanese oyster from France’s Bassin de Thau; that important aqua farming center near the port of Sète on the Mediterranean coast. 
The oyster farmers in the Bassin de Thau claim that they are the source of nearly 20% of all France’s farmed oysters. Whatever the numbers are they certainly do raise a lot of oysters there; mussels as well.   In the North, when adult, these oysters may be on the menu anonymously, but along the Mediterranean coast they will be proudly sold as Bouzigues
Huître de BelonOne of the most famous names in France’s world of oysters. On menus, Belon oysters will always get star billing. The story of Belon oysters noted here, and the way they are farmed is an example of branded French oysters.  Belon oysters begin life in the sea in the Golfe de Morbihan, the Morbihan Gulf, Bretagne.  Then, at two to three years of age, these oysters are taken to the nearby estuaries of the rivers Aven and Belon for fattening. The period of fattening and the area affect the oyster’s taste and texture. As I have noted before, with an oyster you are what you eat.  Among Belon and other oysters, there are also individual ratings for oyster farms within the area. When you see a farmer’s name on the menu, ask why his oysters are considered better than those grown less than I km away.
The Belon trade name is so well appreciated that they are now farming European oysters in the US State of Maine, and elsewhere, in the USA, under name Belon!  Despite what may be on the menu in Maine, these are European oysters. The real Belon European oysters can only come from around the small town of Riec sur Belon in the département of Finistère in the region of Bretagne. French diners know that while American diners may not. 
 If you are in the coastal area of Finistère in Brittany, visit a real Belon oyster farm and taste their oysters, and or their local fish and seafood.  The area's restaurants may not be very fancy, but their prices will be much lower than restaurants in the towns and cities; for fresh raw oysters on the half shell, you do not need a celebrity chef.
Around June 21 consider attending the Finistère summer solstice Druid festival, the Fête Druidique. The locals are descendants of the Celts who came from Britain, and they are proud of that and their Druid heritage. On the last Saturday in July, Druid wannabe or not, do not miss the Fête de l'Huître, the Riec sur Belon oyster festival. This festival is linked to would be Druid traditions and so apart from oysters, you will be offered Chouchen the Druid's liquor.
Boudeuses - An oyster brought to the market in a very small size; they have stopped growing when young, and are considered to have a unique taste and texture.
Huître de Plein Mer  - Oysters from the open sea; however, these are not wild oysters.  These are oysters that are farmed in the open sea, not in the farms along the coast.  These open-sea oyster farms are mostly based in Normandie and Bretagne; the result is a taste considered closer to wild oysters with a stronger hint of iodine, and slightly tougher meat.
Huître de Zélande Oysters farmed in Zélande, Holland;  they are highly considered and are the crinkly shelled creuze oyster.
Huître Creuse du Pacifique- The same as the huître creuse du Japon, the Pacific oyster.
Pied de Cheval –  The Horse's foot oyster; a wild oyster, from the European oyster family that can live for up to thirty years.   These oysters may reach over 15 cm across, and they live wild in the open sea where they may reach the size of a horseshoe. This oyster is brought to the shore by the tides where it is hand-gathered or caught in the nets of fishermen and fisher-women.  The meat is fairly tough and has a different taste to regular oysters.  When available these oysters will be offered as a specialty.                  
An oyster farm
Photograph by  packshot/
Visiting anOyster farm.
Check out the town and villages around Gujan-Mestras in the basin of Arcachon, just 50 km south of Bordeaux, in the département of Gironde in Old Aquitaine. You will be offered a route des huîtres, an oyster road, like a route de vins, the wine roads in the wine country. This route des huîtres takes you through seven picturesque but genuine working ports dedicated to oyster farming; here they raise their Arcachon brand oysters; they also have an oyster museum, their Maison de l'Huître.
The town and villages of Gujan-Mestra pride themselves not only on their oysters but also on other local seafood. All the local oysters, mussels, seafood, and sea-fish are available in their wholesale fish and seafood market, and for the visitor in any local restaurant. Since you are close to Bordeaux, you will have little difficulty in finding a good wine to accompany your choice. After an excellent lunch of oysters, seafood and fresh fish accompanied by Bordeaux wines you will need a rest; head for the Gujan-Mestras sandy beach, 2 km down the road; there you may rent an umbrella and lounge chair and enjoy the rest of the day. If you are near to Gujan-Mestras in early August, visit their Foire aux Huîtres, their oyster fair. 


Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2014, 2019

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman

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