Huitres. Oysters in France 1. Ordering, Eating, and Enjoying Oysters.


Behind the French Menu


Bryan G. Newman


Oysters on the half shell
Photograph courtesy of Jameson Fink


…… "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 are farmed oysters.


Oysters are what they eat and their taste depends on where and how they are raised and for how long.  Eating, enjoying and ordering oysters in France takes a small amount of background knowledge. 

The two species of oysters on offer in France are:

Huître Plate Européenne or Huître Plate - The European Flat Oyster, the Common Oyster.  These flat oysters are nearly circular and can vary from 4mm to 10mm in diameter.  These oysters are the farmed variety of the wild European oyster.  Oysters with names like Belon, Isigny, Cancale, and Paimpol are among the names of highly-rated French oyster fattening grounds.  France has close to twenty oyster-fattening areas and they become the oysters' brand.  However, most restaurants also offer excellent off-brand oysters to keep their prices down.

The European Oyster
on the half-shell.
Photograph courtesy of Charlotta Wasteson


Huître Creuse du Pacifique, Huître Creuse or Huître Japonaise - The Pacific oyster, the Giant Cupped Oyster, or the Japanese Oyster has a somewhat oval shape and can reach up to 12cm end to end. These oysters cost less than the European oysters, and so they hold nearly 70% of the market.


The Pacific Oyster
on the half-shell.
Photograph courtesy of einalem


Other names on the menu:

Huître Boudeuses - Oysters brought to the market in a very small size; these are oysters that have stopped growing when young and are fatter.  The oysters are considered to have a unique taste and texture and are mainly raised off the coast of the department of Charente-Maritime.


Huître de Plein Mer  - Oysters From the Open Sea: these are not wild oysters; they are oysters farmed in the open sea, not in the farms along the coast.  Open-sea oyster farms are primarily found off the coasts of Normandy and Brittany; their taste is considered closer to wild oysters, with a stronger hint of iodine and slightly tougher meat. 


Pied de Cheval – The Horse's Foot oyster is a wild oyster from the European oyster family that can live for over twenty years.   These oysters may reach over 15 cm across and live wild in the open sea, where they may reach the size of a horseshoe.  The tides bring This oyster to shore, where it is hand-gathered or caught in fishers' nets.  The meat is pretty tough and has a different taste from regular oysters.  When available, these oysters will be offered as a specialty.    


Sizes - All oysters on the menu must note the size, whether they have a famous name or not. Numbers indicate the net weight without the shell, and there are two tables in use, one for each of the two types of oysters that France farms. You can see the lists of sizes and weights in a separate post. Huître - Oysters II. How Fresh Oysters in France Are Sold by Weight.


Oysters on sale.
Photograph courtesy of orangemania


Getting oysters ready for the market - After reaching two or three years of age, oysters are taken to fattening grounds where they will eat very well for one to four months and then be sent to the market.  The fattening grounds are river estuaries and saltwater marshes where the algae found there becomes the oysters' breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Each area produces phytoplankton and algae with different tastes.  Each of France's twenty-plus unique oyster fattening grounds provides oysters with different flavors and textures that are graded by experts.  (The experts taste the oysters, not the algae)!  Oysters develop different flavors and textures depending on phytoplankton, the tides, the salinity, the water's depth and temperature, and the water's salinity.  (The same oysters are also farmed in the UK and Ireland; as in France, these oysters take their brand names from the area where they are fattened.  Among the famous UK names are the Colchester, Dorset, and the Whitstable).

The three superior grades:

Most oyster-fattening areas produce three oyster grades above the standard grade of most restaurants. Your menu may offer one of these grades.

Fine de Claire - An oyster fattened for approximately one month; it grows fatter along with its friends with no more than 20 oysters per square meter.


Spéciale de Claire – Highly sought-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, and with so much space, they do eat well, so 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 others 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 worth the price.

French oyster farmers agreed on three terms that, they claim, can describe an oyster's taste and texture. You may 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, the restaurant critics and the restaurants themselves have the greatest influence on the public. When ordering oysters in France, evaluate the different factors, including what the critics say, and then include the price. Like a fine wine, only you may decide if the price you paid was good value for money.

Parc à Hutres  - Oyster Farm
An oyster farm in Cancale,Brittany
Photograph courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra


The Best  Oysters in France.

     Only two French oysters have been awarded the Label Rouge (Red Label) mark of quality, and they are both from the Marennes-Oléron fattening grounds in the department of Charente-Maritime.

      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 Pousse en Claire Label Rouge –This red label was given to the Creuse oyster raised in Marennes Oléron where it is fattened for four months.


The months with an "R" and the best times of the year to enjoy oysters -

     You may have dining companions who will have heard 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!  Many reasons are offered for these traditions, mostly related to the months when oysters spawn.  When oysters spawn, that affects their taste; however, oysters spawn over two to three weeks during a three-month season.  Restaurants serving oysters will ensure they buy them 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 be eaten and enjoyed all year round.



Parc à Huitres  - Oyster Farm

Château Bélon, Finistère sud

Photograph courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet


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 another sauce.  When you are enjoying oysters in France, you make your own decisions on what to add or what not to add.  Try your oysters with and without some of the additions I noted above; make sure the additions do not overwhelm the natural taste of the oyster.


Oysters and more at a Christmas party.
Photograph Courtesy of dominique Bernardini


How to eat an oyster on the half shell - 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 still only take a second or two longer to eat and enjoy them.


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 and that is still used today. A drop of lemon juice on an oyster will create visible movement in a live oyster; today the lemon may also be added for flavor.


Sauce Mignonette - 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.          


Cat on the half-shell.

Photograph courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet


    Pearl in your Oyster? - Unfortunately, for oyster lovers, the oysters that produce high-quality pearls and the mussels that are used for freshwater cultured pearls come from very different and distinct oyster and mussel families. I have been told by a professional pearl farmer that you would never want to eat the meat of a pearl oyster or mussel; don’t even think about it! Nevertheless, you may very, very occasionally find a small crumbly gray pearl in a delicious edible oyster, but, unfortunately, that will not be a pearl of any value; its worth will be less than the oyster that produced it.


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 on sale in the Bastille Market, Paris.

Outside Mcdonalds

Photograph courtesy of ayustety


Visiting an oyster farm - The French eat more oysters per capita than any other nation, and the average French diner learns at an early age the minimum requirements for grading an oyster. When you visit an oyster farm, you will learn by sampling and enjoying the local produce some of the factors that affect an oyster's grade. More than half of the farms on France's Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts may be visited.


     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 area becomes the oysters' brand. Inside and outside oyster farms are restaurants serving cut-priced oysters and locally caught seafood. Allow yourself two to two-and-a-half hours to visit an oyster farm, including lunch. Eating oysters with friends, accompanied by friends and a bottle of good white wine, raises the oysters' grade by a factor of two or three.


     The time an oyster spends on a fattening farm and its access to the food offered will affect its taste and size. Expect further information about this on your visit.

Grilled oysters

Photograph courtesy of leighklotz


A few of the brand names and where they are raised.

    Huîtres  de Bouzigues or Bouzigues – The Creuse or Pacific oyster from France's Étang de Thau; that important aqua-farming center in a lagoon on the Mediterranean coast is 20 km (12.5 miles) long and 3 km (2 miles) at its widest.  The oyster farmers in the Étang de Thau claim that they are the source of close to 20% of all France's farmed oysters, and they certainly do raise a lot of oysters there, mussels as well.   In the North, these oysters may be on the menu anonymously, but along the Mediterranean coast, they will be proudly sold as Bouzigues.


    Huîtres de Belon – One of the most famous names in France's world of oysters.  On menus, Belon oysters will always get star billing.  Belon oysters begin life in the sea in the Golfe de Morbihan, the Morbihan Gulf, Brittany.  At two to three years of age, these oysters are taken to the nearby estuaries of Aven and Belon rivers for fattening.  The fattening period and the area's food sources 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.


 Belon Oysters in the USA? -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 the name Belon!  Despite what may be on the menu in Maine, these are the European oysters raised in the USA.  The real Belon European oysters can only come from around the small town of Riec sur Belon in the department of Finistère in the region of Brittany.  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 or local fish and seafood.  Many of the area's restaurants are not 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 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 alcoholic mead.


Huître de Zélande - Oysters farmed in Zélande, Holland;  they are highly considered crinkly-shelled Pacific (creuse) oysters.                  


An oyster farm

Photograph by  packshot/


Visiting an Oyster farm near Bordeaux - Check out the town and villages around Gujan-Mestras in the Bassin d'Arcachon , just 50 km south of Bordeaux, in the department of Gironde in Nouvelle 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 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.


    The European oyster, in France, the languages of France’s neighbors:

     (Catalan - ostra comuna), (Dutch - platte oester), (German – auster), (Italian - ostrica), (Spanish – ostra común, ostra plana europea, ostión), (Latin - ostrea edulis).    


     The Pacific or Japanese oyster in the languages of France’s neighbors:

     (Catalan - ostra japonesa, ostra fonda, ostra del Pacífic), (Dutch -  Japanse oester), (German - Pazifische auster),  (Italian - ostrica concave, giapponese), (Spanish - ostra japonesa, ostra del Pacífico), (Latin - magallana gigas).




Behind the French Menu


Bryan G. Newman


Copyright 2010, 2013, 2014, 2019, 2023


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Chouchen the Drink of the Druids.
Dining in the Department of Charente-Maritime on France's Atlantic Coast.
Dining in Normandy.
Étang de Thau - A Lagoon on France’s Mediterranean coast.
Gruyère Cheese – French or Swiss? Enjoying French Gruyere IGP.
Huitres. Oysters. Huitres II: How Fresh Oysters in France are Sold by Weight
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