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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Étang de Thau - A Lagoon on France’s Mediterranean coast and Home to Twenty Percent of France’s Oysters and Mussels and a Huge Amount of Fish.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
The Port in the town of Marseillan in the Étang de Thau.

The majority of visitors to France's Mediterranean coast have never heard of the Étang de Thau despite its culinary and economic importance to the local economy.  The Étang de Thau is also known as the Bassin de Thau with the names used interchangeably, and in English translations, the terms lagoon and basin are both used.
Here, are farmed the Huîtres Bouzigues, the Bouzigues oysters, named after the village of Bouzigues in the lagoon where the oyster production started. The lagoon produces over 10,000 tons of oysters a year apart from the mussels, clams, whelks, saltwater fish and crustaceans.
Twenty percent of the oysters from the Étang at two to three years of age are sent to oyster farms on France's Northern Atlantic coast.  There they will be allowed to dine in the coastal estuaries for one to four months and will then be marketed with a famous Atlantic oyster brand. The oysters raised here are the crinkly-shelled creuse oysters also called the Pacific or Japonaise.
  Oysters from the Étang de Thau.
The Étang de Thau on French Menus:

Brasucade de Moules - Brasucade of mussels.  Brasucades are a local dish of mussels fried in large flat paella pans.  There are many recipes, but nearly all of them include, after cooking,  sprinkling with a scented French virgin olive oil just before serving.

Huîtres de l’Étang de Thau Gratinées à la Fondue de Poireaux – Oysters from the Thau Lagoon browned under the grill and served on a bed of leeks.
Mussels gratin

Huîtres Elevées dans le Bassin de Thau et Leur Vinaigrette au Vin et Échalotes – Oysters from the Thau Lagoon served with a wine and shallot vinaigrette.

Mijotée d’Huîtres Chaudes du Bassin de Thau, au Noilly, Risotto au Quinoa – A simmered dish of oysters from the Thau lagoon prepared with Noilly Prat (France’s first vermouth and still the most popular) served with a quinoa risotto.

Plateaux de Moules de l' Étang de Thau; Seiches; Encornets; Gambas  - A platter of mussels from the lagoon served along with cuttlefish, a particularly tasty small squid known as an ecornet,  and large shrimps.
Gambas, large shrimp.
12 Tarbouriech N°3, 12 Bouzigues N°3, 12 Moules Crues 12 pieces No 3 oysters from the Tarbouriech oyster farm on the lagoon, 12 pieces  No 3 oysters from elsewhere on the lagoon and 12 raw mussels.  Oysters are priced by size, the net weight of the oyster not including the shell.  The oysters in the lagoon are the crinkly-shelled creuse oysters and the size No 3 weighs from 65 – 85 grams (2.3 – 3 ounces).  So each dozen oysters on this menu listing will be over 840 grams (30 ounces).  This serving could be an entrée for four people; nevertheless, as oysters are considered easily digestible in large quantities, this platter would be viewed as a large but relatively normal order for two oyster lovers, even for an entrée, the French first course.

This menu listing is a tasting menu for oyster lovers. Here are two similar sized, different tasting and different textured local oysters to compare along with local mussels.  The Tarbouriech oysters are considered the best of the local oysters and on menus all over France.  They come from a farm that grows their oysters on long ropes like other oyster farms but artificially reproduces the effect of high and low tides in the lagoon where the real tides differences are minimal.  The tidal force makes the oysters grow quickly creates a different texture and improves their taste.  For more about how oysters are sold by weight click here.
Some consider the Étang de Thau to be the second largest lake in France. However, it is not a lake it is a seawater lagoon.  (The largest and second largest natural lakes in France are the Lac du Bourget in the department of Savoie and the Lac de Grand-Lieu to the south-west of Nantes, in the Loire-Atlantique).
The Étang de Thau takes up 20 km (12.5 miles) along France’s Mediterranean coast and is 3 km (2 miles) at its widest.  The Étang de Thau is the largest of a string of lagoons that stretch along the French coast from the Rhône River  Delta in the center of the Camargue to the foothills of the Pyrenees and the border of Spain. The Étang de Thau is in the department of Hérault which since 1-1-2016 is part of the new super region of Occitanie that includes the older regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and the Midi-Pyrenees,the home of Cassoulets, Armagnac, the Cuisine of Quercy, the wine of Cahors, and the Garrigues and their cuisine. The Étang de Thau is connected to the Mediterranean and is an integral part of the French Mediterranean coast called the Golfe du Lion. 
Flamingoes in the Étang de Thau.

There is a much-touted adage that you should only eat oysters in the months with an R in them.  That leaves out May, June, July, and August; however the French eat oysters all year round.  Oysters do spawn in the summer and during a period that lasts from two to five weeks, their meat becomes milky and unpalatable.  So restaurants buy from oyster wholesalers who know which oyster beds are out of action and can be relied upon to buy their oysters from farms whose stock have already spawned or have not yet begun to spawn.
The Étang de Thau has earned its place as the most successful commercialized lagoon along the coast not only from it marine products and cuisine but also from its top-rated water-sports centers with everything from fishing to diving and water skiing.  Importantly the lagoon has one of the largest eelgrass beds on France’s Mediterranean coast.  One-third of the lagoon is covered with seagrass and seagrass is part of the ecosystem that aids the cleanliness of the water.  The seagrass is also a nursery for many species of fish, and by the way, seagrasses are flowering plants, not seaweed.
There are fourteen communities along or close to the coast of the Étang de Thau that share the economy of the lagoon. They have varied attractions, from oyster farms that you may visit and check out the merchandise to music festivals to restaurants and water sports centers and even locally grown and produced wines.  The communities include Sète, the largest fishing port on the Mediterranean with its own unique cuisine and area’s gastronomic and economic center and its famous canals is on the eastern edge of the basin, museums and more.  Then there is Frontignan, beaches and its Muscat de Frontignan sweet Muscat wine.  Balaruc-les-Bains, natural hot springs and Balaruc-le-Vieux mineral water “Veolia Eau” and a restaurant school.  Bouzigues, home to most of the original oyster beds, a small beach, a fishing port and home to the Museum of the Étang de Thau and Loupian, prominent concert organizer.  Mèze has a fishing port, oyster farms (as old as Bouzigues); and Marseillan has oysters, Noilly Prat vermouth, mussels, a fishing port, water sports, and music.

There is an annual music Festival de Thau held in the second half of July. The festival is mostly hosted in Frontignan, Loupian, Mèze, and  Marsellian.

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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
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