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Special Travel Issue | France

Selling Half Shells

The Breeding and -- Yes -- the Eating of Oysters Dominate the Aquitaine Region

March 21, 2004|Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette is a Times staff writer.

On a late September afternoon, I sat beneath a grape arbor on the shore of the Bay of Arcachon, discussing the sex life of the oyster with Dominique Aloir, who has been farming oysters in these parts for 37 years. It was low tide, and Aloir, tan and silver-haired at 59, had just sailed his little flat-bottomed boat in from his beds, waded ashore and hosed off his tall rubber boots. Then he had poured glasses of vin nouveau from a plastic water bottle.

I was in the Bassin d'Arcachon in the Aquitaine region of southwest France, 135 miles north of the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast. With four days to explore the bassin, or basin, meeting a longtime oyster farmer was high on my to-do list. This, after all, is Europe's major oyster breeding site, with more than 4,000 seabeds worked by 1,000 farmers producing 20 million pounds of oysters each year for the tables of France, Spain and Ireland. No fewer than 20 oyster farming harbors dot the bay.

The bassin also is a resort area known to French, Germans and Britons, but to few Americans. It includes the town of Arcachon on the inland arm of the bay and, directly across the bay, jutting between it and the Atlantic, the 15-mile-long peninsula of Lege-Cap Ferret--not to be confused with the jet-setter destination of Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. The area promotes itself as "a world apart," which it is. It's not for those seeking luxe accommodations and up-all-hours night life. It is, however, for nature lovers.

About 300 bird species have been spotted at the sanctuary in Le Teich, nine miles east of Arcachon. There, visitors can walk trails dotted with huts from which to spy many bird species migrating between Europe and North Africa. It is open year-round. Water sports abound around the basin, a major boating center and a popular port of call for sailors plying the Atlantic.

Arcachon, with its four miles of seafront, is no resort-come-lately. Its 4th century Roman inhabitants are thought to have enjoyed curative mud baths, and in the early 1800s it attracted the affluent who deemed saltwater bathing fashionable and medicinal. Today busy cafes line the long, wide waterfront promenade. Jetee Thiers is a popular spot for strolling and the main embarkation and debarkation point for ferries and sightseeing boats.

Nutrient-rich water and a mild climate (about 50 to 77 degrees) also have helped make the bay Europe's major oyster breeding site. They say in these parts that the oyster -- naturally abundant in Roman times -- was the first inhabitant, and it remains ubiquitous in the basin. Oyster breeding, or ostreiculture, is the principal industry, generating $38 million annually. Everywhere one sees signs: "Ici Vente Directe Huitres" -- Oysters Sold Here Direct. Oysters on the half shell, eaten year-round, are on virtually every local menu.

On the day I visited with Aloir, he and his partner had just returned to the beds the young oysters they had collected the day before in metal mesh bags and brought ashore to be washed. Those oysters would continue to grow and be ready to eat in three months, just in time for Christmas.

The oyster farmer works "all year long, every day," Aloir said, keeping his beds clean (the worst part of the job), placing the collectors for the eggs, separating the oysters with a hand tool, sorting them for size, selling them. That means no weekends off, no vacations. It's a good living, he said, because "many people want to buy oysters," but "the oyster farmer who doesn't work a lot will not make it. I'm beginning to be tired. It's hard on the back."

Since the '70s, about two-thirds of the area's oyster farmers have called it quits. Some, thinking it would be easy work, became disillusioned. And, Aloir said, "Sometimes the son doesn't like to work like the father."

The French recognize the importance of oyster farming to the basin and are vigilant about protecting this resource. Some things are beyond their control. One year the water was unusually cold and there were few baby oysters. In 1970 an epidemic wiped out the then-dominant species. And, as Aloir knows, "If there's pollution in the bay, the oyster can't stay alive. We were lucky with the oil spill." After a huge oil tanker spill off Spain in 2002, locals were quick to barricade the bay, realizing that such a disaster could ruin the 150-year-old industry. Damage was limited, and local oysters were kept off the market for only 10 days.

At high tide, tall, crooked pinewood poles--pignots--poke out of the bay, making it resemble some strange de-timbered forest. They mark boundaries of oyster beds and protect young oysters by breaking up waves. Pignots also are convenient perches for the cormorants and other birds that call the bay home and are treasured and protected by residents of the basin.

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