The taste of the sea

Their salty flavour and lively freshness have always enchanted gourmets, who’ve eaten them, raw or cooked, since ancient times. Our ancestors, blessed with enormous appetites, were able to eat a hundred each. Nowadays we tend to order them in multiples of 6. But the wickerwork baskets that are traditionally used to transport them, called bourriches, can still hold up to a hundred.

Oysters are categorised by size, from 5 to 1 for the so-called hollow variety, and up to 0 and 00 for flat. Contradictorily, the smaller the number, the bigger the oyster shell. Their category also determines the number of oysters sold by kilo. Fine de claire” oysters are named after the clay sieves in which oyster farmer refine them. The oysters that pass through the sieves are thinner and greener. Their flavour varies according to which part of the French coast they come from.

Oysters originally came from wild beds, for example flat varieties such as Marettes and Belons, Gravettes from the bay of Arcachon and Bouzigues from the Etang de Thau. Hollow oysters were imported to the French coasts by the sinking of a Portuguese ship in the 1860s. Its cargo of oysters spread as far as Brittany. Then they disappeared, culled by an epidemic. Happily they’ve been replaced by the Pacific strain, known as “Japanese”, which makes up the majority of those consumed today.

Gourmet geography

Oyster farms have existed along the French coasts since antiquity. Hence from Normandy we have the Belon, with its faint taste of hazelnut, or the hollow variety, as salty as their Breton cousins, the rétoises, named after the Île de Ré and with a slight seaweed flavour. There are also the refined Marennes-Oléron oysters, from the region of that name in the south-west, the Arcachonnaises (from Arcachon, south-west of Bordeaux) with their particular marine flavour, and finally the Mediterranean variety.

The “why” behind the “r”

The tradition that oysters should be eaten when there’s an “r” in the month dates back to an edict by Louis XV, which prohibited their sale from April to September.  Months when freshness was hard to maintain in an era when transport was slow and refrigeration non-existent. In fact winter is the best season for tasting oysters. And since spring and summer are their spawning times, not eating them at during that period preserves the stocks. They can also have a milky consistency, not on a par with the fleshy whiteness of the tasty, plump oysters of winter.

Taste without moderation

Alexandre Dumas, as great a gourmet as he was a writer, observed in his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine that true connoisseurs eat oysters raw, without lemon or vinaigrette. Fresh, but not chilled, so they should recoil under the tine of the fork, proof that they are alive, well, and safe to eat. However, the greatest chefs in the history of gastronomy know how to cook them hot in delicate recipes. Rich in minerals and trace elements, oysters also have the advantage of being low in calories, unlike the bread, butter or sausages we sometimes eat with them: because it has to be said that a touch of fat in the mouth wonderfully enhances their marine flavours.

A dime a dozen

Oysters were traditionally sold by the dozen. But their price, justified by the complexity of ensuring their proper development in oyster beds, means they are increasingly sold by the kilo, with a guaranteed minimum number. And as we know, their category defines their weight. But in practice, at fishmongers this also means the end of the pleasant commercial gesture of throwing in an extra oyster to effectively offer 13 to the dozen.


A historical anecdote


The Greeks recycled oyster shells into voting slips, on which they wrote the names of those they wanted to “ostracise” – from the Greek "ostrakon", shell – that is to say, banish from the city for a certain time.

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  • Les huîtres


  • Les huîtres


  • Les huîtres