Eating oysters, the French poet Léon-Paul Fargue once said, was “like kissing the sea on the lips”. Anyone who has consumed one of said molluscs will know exactly what he meant. The salty, slightly sour ozone taste of a freshly shucked oyster contains the distilled essence of the ocean.
It is often claimed that the French produce the world’s best oysters. Certainly, the extensive French coast provides an ideal location for oyster beds, and the creatures have been cultivated there since Roman times. Louis XIV supposedly had oysters brought to Versailles from Cancale, a picturesque fishing port known as the oyster capital of Brittany. Other legendary oyster-growing areas include Marennes-Oléron on the west coast, which is the largest cultivation area in Europe and notable for its “claires” or inland oyster pools, and Arcachon at the southern end of the Bay of Biscay. But the truth is that oysters are cultivated almost everywhere along France’s coastline.
Oysters have been eaten around the world for millennia, but it was the Romans who developed a complex system of cultivating them in specially built beds, which allowed for a boom in their consumption. One Roman oyster breeder in particular, Sergius Orata, was famed for his ability to cultivate the molluscs using channels and dams to regulate the flow of seawater into oyster beds to maximise production. Such was his wizardry, that it was claimed he could have bred oysters on his roof had he tried. Orata’s methods became widespread throughout Europe, and laid the template for the French ostréiculture (oyster industry). Orata is also known for another invention: the heated swimming pool.
Today, there are two species of culinary oyster cultivated in France: the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and the European oyster (Ostrea edulis). The European oyster – native to France – was once the staple bivalve found across the country. It’s often called “huître plate”, or in some areas “gravette”, and particularly large (and rare) specimens are called “pied de cheval”, thanks to their similarity in size and shape to a horse’s hoof. These can weigh up to an astonishing 3kg and live for almost 20 years.
The European oyster has suffered from over-harvesting and disease, and now makes up less than 10 per cent of the oysters produced in France. The majority are Pacific oysters, first introduced to France in the 1970s from Japan, and brought in to replace the now almost extinct Portuguese oyster. The Pacific oyster helped save French ostréiculture at a time of crisis in the 1960s, and 1970s as stocks collapsed.
In the nineteenth century, Paris was just one of a number of globally significant oyster-eating cities (New York and London also loved their molluscs), but today Paris holds the crown. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that oysters – high in testosterone-boosting zinc – are traditionally considered an aphrodisiac and Paris is, of course, the famed city of love.
Traditionally, oysters were not eaten during months that don’t contain the letter “R” in the name – meaning the summer months. This was largely because in a time before refrigeration, oysters would go off quickly and cause acute food poisoning. Today, they can have a shelf life of over a week after harvesting, if kept carefully refrigerated. But the fresher they are the better, and nothing beats scoffing them straight from their shells with just a squeeze of lemon, within sight (and smell) of the sea. And preferably washed down with a crisp local white wine.
As the English satirist Jonathan Swift is often quoted as saying: "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." But without that brave experimenter, we would have most certainly missed a treat.