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I know of a cure for everything: salt water…in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.

Karen Blixen

We’ve had the sea. The entirely different smell of salt water, and the movement of tides. Bodensee – Lake Constance – is beautiful and large enough to be constantly changing on the surface with the movement of light and wind – but I miss the deeper pulse of the tides.

Brittany was our fix. And not just the sight of the sea, but the taste of it. We’ve been eating oysters. That understates it. We’ve been gorging on oysters. Pure concentrated taste of the salt sea.

Let me state my position up front. I firmly believe there is no better oyster in the world than the Bluff oyster. But I am prepared to go to a lot of effort to test that belief.

Notable oyster-excursions have included our 2010 NZ Far North tour.   I wrote then for Helvetia magazine:

Doesn't everyone do this in a Paris hotel room?

Doesn’t everyone do this in a Paris hotel room?

“Oysters seem to be among the things that firmly divide people’s opinions – up there with religion, politics, and sports teams! […]  

But yes – we’re in the “oysters are the food of the gods” camp.   The highlight of our weekend in Paris last year was not the art and architecture – it was the oysters from the street-stall.

So, you can imagine our distress when we realised that leaving early for Europe this year will mean we miss the Bluff oyster season. Compensation: each oyster opportunity has been a “must stop”.  

The best oyster eating place so far [was] Totara North on the Whangaroa Harbour.   It’s where my great-great grandfather’s family had a kauri timber mill – the last one to operate once the kauri trade finished.     The Lanes built ships there too – indeed the last time I was back there was twenty years ago when we took the scow Te Aroha ‘home’ for her 80th birthday.

Hunting and gathering rock oysters at Totara North

Hunting and gathering rock oysters at Totara North

There’s not much remaining now – just the huge sheds breaking down in the weather, and some rusting machinery.  

Industries change as our lives do. Boat building and timber milling have disappeared from the Whangaroa – but – oysters! The new industry of oyster farming means spat are plentiful in the harbour. Heaps of them have colonised the piles of the old wharf buildings at Totara North and grown into gorgeous oysters. We gathered, opened, and ate, until we’d had enough, then stayed the night on the wharf in Feierabend and did the same the next day. The cuts in our hands have healed now – but the flavour lingers in our memory.”

Feb 2010 – Helvetia

 

Jane demonstrating the perfect slurp at Frontignon
Jane demonstrating the perfect slurp at Frontignon

2010 ended up being a vintage oyster-eating year in Europe too. We drove through Southern France en route to Spain, and discovered Frontignan. A small town, with Muscat wine vineyards and an oyster stall in the tiny central square where they’d open a dozen and put them on a plate with a lemon for 5 euros. We revisited that paradise on the way back up with Jane and Peter.

So – there was the challenge for Brittany.   Could the oyster-experience measure up? I’d noted the famous oyster areas in my pre-research, and off we went with our mouths watering.

First attempt, in the Bay of Morbihan – disaster! Waterfront restaurant out from Arradon: “Oysters please.” “Sorry – we have none. It’s spawning season and they’re all milky. No oysters.”

The Point at Arradon. Picture perfect, but - no oysters!

The Point at Arradon. Picture perfect, but – no oysters!

No oysters – all this way and they’re too busy having sex? The Gulf of Morbihan is Brittany’s oyster nursery, with spat from here being sent out to other parts of the Breton coast to mature. So oyster sex is serious business here.

But.. it must have just been those particular oysters. Next day, a little further round the bay – oysters for lunch. Later after sampling many others, we rated those as too small. But at the time, there was the particular joy of the first. And perhaps the only, if all round the rest of the coast the others were too busy ensuring future populations?

Yes!  There are oysters for eating...  Port Navalo

Yes! There are oysters for eating… Port Navalo

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But.. it must have just been those particular oysters. Next day, a little further round the bay – oysters for lunch.

Later after sampling many others, we rated those as too small. But at the time, there was the particular joy of the first. And perhaps the only, if all round the rest of the coast the others were too busy ensuring future populations?

No such worries. The next morning we were in Carnac, where they’ve been farming oysters since the 1880s. Currently they count around 80 farms there.

Paradise beckons

Paradise beckons

IMG_1232_1The Sunday market was huge – everything you could imagine to eat and drink and wear – and a group practising Breton bagpipes – and oysters! My breakfast was a dozen huge oysters, shucked by the man on the stall, packed with seaweed and lemon, and slurped down on the side of the road before we went hunting megaliths.

Onwards… I’ll write about the megaliths and menhirs and Breton villages and the hydrangeas (truly) later.. but let’s follow the oysters.

Now we’re on the northern coast of Brittany, where the rocks are pink granite. The market at Treburden had oysters, but there the stall-holder couldn’t/wouldn’t open them.. but she would sell us an oyster knife.

I thought about my old faithful opener

The round flat ones are the indigenous variety.

The round flat ones are the indigenous variety.

still in the drawer in Kapiti, and bought another. Essential equipment really.  We chose a mixture of the “hollow shell” oyster that we’d been eating, and that look pretty like our Pacific oysters, and the indigenous “flat” oysters. The latter have been badly affected by a parasite – perhaps similar to bonamia? – and so it’s mainly the hollow shell that are cultivated.

Resistence is futile. Man(i) the tool-user.

Resistence is futile. Man(i) the tool-user.

Out of town, around a marsh (with a menhir standing the middle), and to a small bay where the tide was on the way out.

We settled ourselves on pink granite rocks, and watched the bay empty of water and fill with families gathering seafood…. and ate oysters. That evening I had to have lobster instead.

Picnics don't come much better.

Picnics don’t come much better.

Over the bay and foraging families, to the oyster farm.

Over the bay and foraging families, to the oyster farm.

The sea-midden.

The sea-midden.

Just one more oyster stop. They say, “Mention Cancale to a Frenchman or a foodie and the instant response will be ‘oysters’.”   So – down to the port, seafood restaurants galore. But we’d got to like our “do-it-yourself” dining, and found the cluster of oyster-sellers’ stalls.  Such choice:  I settled for the “Huitres sauvage”.  I know it means ‘gathered from the wild rather than farmed’ – but couldn’t resist the mental picture of savage oysters!

The instructions were clear. “We’ll open them for you, but you must sit over there on the harbour-wall to eat them, and throw the shells into the sea.”  “Mais oui Madame!” (by now, the French was coming more readily to my tongue). But we’d had a good breakfast, and it was only morning tea-time, and I could manage only half a dozen before I – I couldn’t imagine myself thinking this – I couldn’t eat another. Sated! Surreptitious tipping of remaining oysters into a plastic bag, and away. The rest were lunch, as we started our inland-facing return journey, taking the taste of the sea at least a little way with us.

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Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

Anita Desai

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