02 January 2011

All about oysters

Just now, looking for an English name for the oysters that are commonly called « huîtres creuses » in France, I came across a very good web site about oysters. Here's a link. The author, John McCabe, has done a great service for us English-speakers who want to describe and discuss oysters and the oyster industry in France.

"Eating oysters is good for what ails you."

Huîtres creuses literally means "hollow oysters" or maybe "bowl-shaped oysters." These are oysters that have one shell that is deeply concave or "cupped" — the other is much flatter, and it fits over the top of the cupped shell like a lid on a bowl. In English, however, "hollow oysters" — and they aren't really hollow, because the succulent oyster flesh is inside there — are just called "Pacific oysters."

Red wine vinegar with chopped shallot and black pepper makes
a mignonnette sauce that's good with oysters on the half shell.

That's where the species came from — the Pacific Ocean. The history of the French oyster business is fairly complex. The oysters that make up by far the largest portion of the total haul in France were imported to French waters from Japan a couple of decades ago. That's because the native French oysters had been nearly fished out and then decimated by a parasite.

Don't forget to eat your oysters...

The Pacific oysters we had for our New Year's Eve dinner were my favorite ones. They are produced down near the town of Marennes, which is on the mainland just across from the tip of the Ile d'Oléron. That's between La Rochelle and Bordeaux on France's Atlantic coast. Walt and I spent a week on the island in 2008 and I blogged about it here.

Our platter of Pacific oysters from Marennes-Oléron

We actually had two kinds of Pacific oysters in the batch we enjoyed consuming on December 31. The ones we paid for were Pacific oysters "fattened" in salt ponds called « claires », and are known as « fines de claires » [feen-duh-KLEHR] — fines because they are "fine" or "refined" oysters. The claires are man-made basins dug out of the mud in salt marshes along the coast. They're fairly small, Mr. McCabe says, at about 500 square meters (say 50 x 100 sq. ft.), and they are shallow — maybe 1 or 2 feet deep.

« Fines de claires » oysters

Oysters are gathered in the beds in coastal waters where they breed and live and they are put into these salt ponds to fatten up under nearly ideal conditions. Like fine French cheeses, oysters go through a process of « affinage » or "refinement" before they are taken to market. Cheeses kept in proper conditions of temperature and humidity improve with age, and oysters that spend two or three months in salt ponds to feed and fatten up also benefit greatly. In the ponds, they are not subjected to tides and currents that can at times leave the oyster beds high and dry, and leave the oysters exposed to the hot, baking sun for hours at at time.

So we bought a dozen and a half fines de claires oysters, and as a bonus the vendor selling them at the market threw in a few oysters of the same variety that had not been fattened in claires. Those are called « huîtres de pleine mer » — "open-sea oysters" that are gathered out in the offshore beds. Some people say they like them better because they taste more natural and wild — and of course they are less expensive.

Huîtres plates (and a few huîtres de pleine mer on the right)

We also bought a dozen « huîtres plates » — the "flat oysters" that are the original Northern European species. These native oysters were nearly fished to extinction in the last century, and then a parasite decimated the remaining population. They were first replaced in France by oysters imported from the waters off Portugal and that were actually more like the Pacific "cupped" oyster. Then the « huîtres portugaises » also caught a disease and were wiped out too. That's when new seed oysters were brought in from the Pacific Ocean — about 40 years ago.

The native French flat oysters are also called « belons » because they were originally cultivated and fattened at the mouth of the Belon river in Brittany. Only ones that have been farmed and fattened in Brittany can legally be called belons in France — the same oysters that come from other areas (like Marennes-Oléron) are just huîtres plates.

After eating raw oysters, a nice escarole salad with croûtons,
bacon, and a garlicky vinaigrette dressing can be refreshing.

I thought the flat oysters we bought had a muddy taste compared to the crisp, clean taste of the fines de claires. Maybe it was just those particular ones, because the flat oysters are reputed to have a distinctive metallic taste and to be saltier (plus iodé) than the fines de claires. I didn't find that to be the case. I'll probably stick to fines de claires from now on. But maybe I will soon try some real belons from Brittany.


  1. Your impression of the native oysters is much as mine is. And, in London, they are 3 times the price of the Pacifics, which are themselves twice the price they are in France.

  2. I should have mentioned that our 30 oysters cost 12 euros at the market. And then we got the little bonus of "wild" oysters.

  3. Great post Jim, lots of fascinating info, I'll post a link from my blog if thats OK. I disagree with Susan though, I think oysters in the UK cost even more! When I visited France (before I lived here the first thing I would eat would be a dozen oysters just standing at the nearest oyster stall, nothing tastier. All my best for 2011.

  4. Our New Year's Eve dinner was about the same. We had a fois gras left over from our Christmas stock and I got us two dozen medium-sized fines de claire. We had an endive salad, cheese and then clementines for dessert.
    Your oysters were much less expensive than ours. At the oyster stand at our market in Nogent (just outside Paris) I paid €30!
    So often I notice that the prices you cite are much cheaper than what we are paying up here. Maybe we should move!

  5. We had New Year's Day shrimp, thank you very much. No huîtres for me. I'm glad you two enjoyed yours, however. :)) Despite my lack of interest in eating oysters, I found your post very interesting, as always! I love learning about these "what is the origin?" things.


  6. Hi Colin, let me introduce myself. My name is Ken. Thanks for your comment.

    Hello Ellen, friends of mine who live in the Chicago area — she's American, he's French from Paris — are here for a visit right now. They were telling me how expensive everything seemed in Paris and its suburbs. I told them everything is a lot less expensive out here in the country. It's true.

    Judy, we love shrimp too.

  7. Hi Ken,
    Much enjoyed your report! Your passion for oyster is delightfully evident. Let’s hope that the current oyster malaise afflicting the young creuses won’t drive up prices soon (and many growers out of business).
    Best wishes,


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