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Cycling for oysters

Cycling for oysters

Come the festive season the oyster becomes a prized specimen, an intrinsic part of any Christmas or New Year feast. But despite living in France for many years Helen Millar had never eaten one – until she spent a day in the Marennes...

I've never eaten an oyster, so according to Cousin Bob I’ve never lived. I feel the same way about people like him who’ve never consulted a large scale IGN map (Institut Geographique National, the French equivalent of the Ordnance Survey) and rely on their SatNavs.

oyster 1


We’re off to explore the triangle between St Georges d’Oléron, Marenne and La Tremblade, half land, half sea, parceled out in 19th century salt beds, marshes, oyster fields, inlets, islands and estuaries. I’m on maps, he’s on oysters. Trouble is, Cousin B draws the line at cycling; he wants his oysters in a restaurant, the little bi-valves laid out ready and waiting for him. He wants posh, I want simple. But he’s out of luck because it’s my turn to choose the outing and I want to go where the crowds have left. And I promise him that the land’s excellent for cycling and flat, flat, flat just like an oyster!

But oysters aren’t flat he protests, they might have been once but that was before… And instantly he’s in his element. He’s the expert. The flat oyster (Ostrea edulis or Belon) was common up until 1868 when they were over-run by the Creuse oyster (Crassostrea angulata), the convex fatter newcomers (a bit like us Brits settling here in France). Evidently a Portuguese ship sheltered from a storm in the Gironde estuary. It was stuffed with oysters and they were stuck for so long that the crew assumed the molluscs were dead and tipped them overboard. But oysters are tenacious, they survived and took over. The oyster lover’s oyster, boasts Bob, and I swear he’s salivating!

We’re doing a circuit cycling through the sandy, shaded pine forest parallel to the clapperboard town of St George d’Oléron. We’ve oyster beds to our right, a nature reserve ahead and if we’re lucky and the tide’s right we’ll cycle back along the beach, a dramatic coastline of collapsing dunes littered with the corpses of trees tortured by the Atlantic weather. We stand on the tide line, Fort Boyard in the distance, sea fishermen with rods, a haze of mist in the sky, the tide receding. And I’m no longer at sea where oysters are concerned because my cousin’s filling me in. They come in sizes - a small five through to the plumpest triple zero. One for the connoisseur he boasts, but I don’t rise to the bait. The moment’s arrived. The tides out, the sand’s firm and we’re off like toddlers cycling towards the horizon.Then out of the dunes streak a group of octogenarian nudists romping towards the sea, headed by an ancient pot bellied man, letting it all hang out. ‘A gnome!’ I yell; ‘No, a baker,’ chortles Cousin B. Big brioche, small baguette! And then he remembers that he hasn’thad his oysters and on we go. Of course everyone knows that the aphrodisiac properties of oysters are a myth - though glancing back, this group are doing well on something. So why not oysters?

We’ve come to the source. Papin-Poget  dominates the regional oyster business. Its efficient hangars, a century away from the picturesque oyster cabins of La Tremblade, cling tenaciously to the edge of La Route Neuve which seems to float upon the sea. Quays are piled high with metal cages, boxes, palettes and a surprisingly speedy traffic of fork-lifts. Stand in the road at your peril! Either side are the rectangular beds that are a haven for oysters. Pylons, derricks and the bridges that span the estuary merge into the mist and there’s a scrunching underfoot of oyster shells used to line the paths. And unperturbed, a solitary heron shares the harvest.

Founded in 1907 Papin-Poget is a family business that survived the countrywide decimation of the oyster stocks by a mystery illness in the 1970s. France went into mourning. Replacement young were shipped in from Japan. Now Papin-Poget raises its own stock in laboratories and to get the best from their oysters, at two years old, they’re sent on holiday to Normandy and Brittany to fatten up before coming back to relax in the claires off La Tremblade.

Marennes
We’re given a tour! M Thierry Poget, a reassuringly knowledgeable and agile man in his forties, shows us around. He’s on his toes, mobile at the ready. Mornings are fraught but he still has time to enthuse about his oysters. And even Cousin B learns more as Thierry informs us that, contrary to popular belief, in oysters size has nothing to with age! And the frill that everyone thinks is green isn’t green at all, it’s blue but when overlaid with yellowy flesh it just looks green! And my cousin tucks this new information contentedly into his collection. This man’s a hero, he exudes a quiet confidence - this is a fragile crop and a fickle market and after washing, cleaning, resting, inspecting and safeguarding them he can quite honestly say that he’s confident that his oysters are the best.

Even though the industry’s partially mechanized, he tells us, it’s still labour intensive. The cages have to be turned and shifted, sizes sorted and sifted; wet work in harsh conditions. This is a landscape of work. It has a haunting beauty and I’m in my element. I love it.

Then, I was brought up in the middle of a South London industrial estate. I’m very suspicious of perfection. And it’s here that, thanks to Thierry Poget, I finally eat my first oyster, chosen carefully from an enormous heap. How could I resist? It was over in a moment! A size 3! A salty, fresh, shock to the system. The rest would be in Paris by the evening or China by the next morning.

We, too, head off. The best vantage point from which to appreciate this vast flat checkered marshland is from the top of the gothic tower of L’église de Marennes, though it’s best to attempt the 289 steps before rather than after lunch. The curate’s sister in the house opposite keeps the key and gladly lets us in. More worryingly she shuts the door behind us and leaves us to it. We stagger to the top and cling on in the sharpening wind. The hollow steeple rises above the viewing platform, perforated for ease of access by the pigeons. But nothing, even fear of being unceremoniously christened, can take away from the view - we are the gods of all we see! At last we gain a real understanding of the estuaries, the sea-soaked landscape, the digging and delving that has gone on since the Middle Ages to wrest a living from the elements. It’s like being on a storm tossed vessel. And given that the church has suffered its fair share of storm damage and the weather’s deteriorating fast you’ll forgive us both for scuttling back down to safety.

Marennes 3
Ultimately Marenne is bleak and instead of camping we hire a holiday chalet on a deserted site in La Tremblade. Much the nicest town, it’s a jaunty little working community, old-fashioned seafood huts lining the canal and it’s blessed with a bustling covered market. And as we sit on the veranda, sipping wine we’re pleased with ourselves. This isn’t how Cousin B envisaged it. We have woolly hats pulled down to our eyebrows, fleeces zipped up to our chins, socks pulled up over our knees. But we are eating oysters, and the mosquitoes aren’t eating us. Off season’s good, very good. And it’s my turn to toast dear Cousin Bob because this afternoon he saved me from wild horses, or at least very fast ones galloping rider-less along the cycle path on their way to their autumn pastures. Their laconic owner following some way behind on a bike amused to see me spread-eagled in a bush. He thought the tourists had gone.

I might warm to oysters eventually but whatever Cousin B was searching for, he seems to have found it because in a haze of alcohol he’s contentedly reading the map. Did I know that if you take the train from Angoulême to Royan with your bikes and then right along the coast you will get here? Shall we do that next time? (I did know, but I don’t let on.) It really is surprising what oysters can do…

 

COPYRIGHT: Living Poitou-Charentes Magazine - originally published in December 2011

PHOTOS: Living Poitou-Charentes Magazine