Monday, February 1, 2016

Oysters in Bordeaux: Visiting the Oyster Farmer Raphael Doerfler and his Earl Ostrea Chanca Oyster Farm - Bordeaux Tour by ombiasy WineTours (2015), France

Picture: Annette Schiller in the Oyster Banks of the Basin de Archachon

In my home country Germany, oysters are very high on the list of any food aficionado, but you do not see them often on menus in restaurants nor is there a significant number of oyster bars in Germany. By contrast, at both coasts of the US, oysters are part of daily life. In Washington DC, supermarkets tend to have a nice seafood selection, including oysters and there are many oyster bars and restaurants that serve oysters at their bar. Having worked at the IMF from 1983 to 2010, I got to know oysters at the US East Coast.

Pictures: Earl Ostrea Chanca, Cabane 22, 54 allee du Grand piquey, 33950 Lege Cap-Ferret

In France, oysters are also almost a daily staple, at least during the season. I spent 3 years in Paris for the IMF (2004 to 2006) and got to appreciate very much French oysters. During the 3 years in Paris I had bought oysters on the market and eaten them at home or had eaten them an one of the countless brasseries that serve oysters. But I had never visited an oyster farmer in France. Thus, I was very excited when I learnt that my wife Annette had included a visit of an oyster farmer in the schedule of the 2013 Bordeaux Wine Tour by ombiasy PR and WineTours.

Bordeaux Wine Tour 2013 by ombiasy

We visited Raphael Doerfler, Earl Ostrea Chanca, Cabane 22, 54 allee du Grand piquey, 33950 Lege Cap-Ferret

Pictures: Oyster Farmer Ralphaphael Doerfler, Earl Ostrea Chanca, Cabane 22

Restaurant Pinasse

Following the oyster tasting, we had lunch at Restaurant Pinasse. A "pinasse" describes a small sail boat design which served French oystermen for centuries as an important work boat. They were about 20 to 30 feet long, narrow, flat bottomed, with a round stern, usually equipped with one mast (occasionally also two), no jib, a center board at times and a rudder, with plenty carrying capacity for oysters. If the oystermen happened to get stuck in a prolonged wind lull, they could return to shore by paddle.

Picture: Restaurant Pinasse

Oysters in the World

I distinguish 4 types of oysters.

The Pacific

Originally from Japan, the Pacific or Japanese oyster is the most widely cultured oyster in the world. It accounts for 75% of world production. In France, it has crowded out the Belon and now accounts for 99% of oyster production there. Gone are the days of the Belon in Paris. The Pacific oysters are marketed under a variety of names, often denoting their growing area. The Kumamoto is one of the most famous Pacific oysters. I tend to think of a Pacific oyster as a creamy oyster, with a mineral note.

Pictures: Tour with Raphael Doerfler, Earl Ostrea Chanca

The Olympia

The Olympia is a very small oyster seldom exceeding 2 inches. For comparison, in Massachusetts, oysters must be a minimum of 3 inches to be sold. Olympia is a native American oyster, which once flourished on the West Coast, before the Pacific took over. Olympias are hard to find today as they grow very slowly and are difficult to transport. They hold very little liquid and dry out quickly. The Olympia has a very full flavor with a distinct aftertaste.

The Atlantic

Another American native, there are many varieties of Atlantic oysters, such as the Malpeque from Prince Edward Island in Canada and the Blue Point from Long Island in New York State. Bluepoints were originally named for Blue Point, Long Island but now the term is generally applied to any Atlantic oyster two four inches long. These two are now the most common restaurant oysters in the US. Also called Eastern oyster, the Atlantic has a thick, elongated shell that ranges from 2 to 5 inches across. It's found along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico in the US.

Pictures: Tour with Raphael Doerfler, Earl Ostrea Chanca

The Belon

The Belon, or European Flat, is Europe’s native oyster. The Belons are round and shallow. That’s why they are called Flats. They are also not very liquid and dry out fast. They have a long history. They used to grow in Brittany, Normandy, England, Spain, Holland, Greece and the Black See. But a disease is wiping them out worldwide. The Flats from the Belon river in Brittany were at some point the connoisseur’s top choice and the name was soon adopted by all oyster growers, a bit like the Blue Points from Long Island. The Belon oyster grows in limited quantity in Maine on the rocks of the Damariscotta river bed.

Schiller's World of Seafood
Oysters and Wine

Pictures: Shucking Oysters

An Oyster’s Life Story

Raphael Doerfler explained to us in detail how an oyster is produced. The World of Oysters Blog has a nice write-up of this subject (on November29, 2006), which I am copying.

“Hello, my name is Fine de Claire. I was born in the estuary of the Seudre on the Atlantic coast. I never knew my parents. My friends explained, that they don’t know their parents either. Now I know why: my mother ejected millions of eggs in the water, my father millions of sperms; one egg and one sperm found together and I’m the result of that meeting. I understand that my parents couldn’t manage raising so many children. After a few months my foster-father found me in the cold water and decided to pick me up.

Pictures: Oyster Tasting with Raphael Doerfler, Earl Ostrea Chanca

He put me in a net with others of my size and he laid us down on benches in the sea. Every time the tide was going out I was out of water during a few hours. Then the water came back and I filtered the fresh water in my gills so that I could catch plankton. In one hour I was able to filter up to 5 liters. At my first birthday I developed the ability to produce sperms on my own. In May, June, Jule and August, when the temperature of the water had risen I ejected my sperms in the hope they would conquer the eggs of the nice looking female next to me. In my second year on the bench I experienced a weird transformation. I became a female and my darling became a male. This change of sexes was possible because we are Hermaphrodites and we adept to the circumstances of our environment. That means, if we could capture sufficiently plankton so we have the energy to produce eggs we become women. Otherwise we are forced to be man. In my third year my foster-father came back to collect me and my friends. He said, that we had grown enough (8-14 cm long) and that we would receive a purification in another location. I asked myself why, because we felt very well in the brackish water and I still wanted to father many descendants with my partner(s) during the next 20 or 30 summers that we were still supposed to live. Against our will, we were placed into basins that had been dug out artificially and that were filled constantly with a mixture of sea and freshwater. There I became green because of a special alga that was in the water. After a few weeks we were taken out of the nets and put into different boxes according to our size. During the next days everything went very fast. We were washed and brushed, put into baskets, made a journey in a truck, and arrived at the market of La Rochelle. I became thirsty because I was out of water since 2 days. Finally 3 young boys came and chose me and 11 friends of mine.”

Oysters in France

99% of all oysters produced in France today are Pacific oysters, referred to in the French market as "Huître creuse" or simply as "Creuses". Another colloquial name for the Pacific oyster is "Japonaise". The Belon oyster, the classic oyster of France, which is hard to find, is called "Huître plate" or simply "Plate".

Pictures: Lunch at Pinasse Cafe

The French oyster business traditionally starts booming between Christmas and New Year's Day. About 50% of the annual oyster production is consumed during this time.

From North to South there are seven distinct growing regions in France: Normandy, North-Brittany, South-Brittany, West-Central, Marennes-Oléron, Arcachon, and the Mediterranean. Although some of these areas are far more famous than others, they all produce excellent oysters.

Pictures: Plateau des Fruits de Mer

L'Affinage en Claires

The Bassin de Marennes-Oléron in the Poitou-Charentes region has been famed for its oyster production since Roman times, thanks in large part to the claire oysters, reared in the shallow claires (oyster beds) set in to the coastline, which allows a more rounded mineral flavor to develop.

More than 80% of all the "claire refined" oysters in France come from the Bassin de Marennes-Oléron. Oysters that have not spent any time in claires are called huîtres de parc (park oysters). They originate directly from the growing areas right by the ocean. These oysters have a typical ocean flavor, which many oyster lovers simply love.

The claire refined oysters have not only spent a varying amount of time in claires, but also in varying oyster population densities. The shallow brackish water in these claires is very rich in phytoplankton, microscopic algae, the favorite food of oysters. The shallow brackish water also changes the "oceany" taste of the typical park oysters over by the sea to a more sweetish, aromatic, and rich flavor.

Oysters that were cared for in claires have special names. There are four varieties: pousses en claire, which are grown entirely in the claires from naissins (new-borns), and - in descending price order - fines de claires vertes, spéciales de claires and fines de claires, which are all matured in the claires for varying times.

Fines de claires have been refined for about a month in claires; about 30 to 40 oysters will share a space of one square meter.

Spéciales de claires have spent about two to four months in claires; only about 5 to 10 oysters share an area of one square meter.

Fines de claires vertes come into contact with navicule bleue algae, which give the oyster’s yellow gills their distinctive green tint.


The Arcachon basin produced wild oysters in ancient times. Today it has become an important breeding center, supplying spats (oyster larvae) to most of France's oyster-farming basins. Thus, the oyster industry of Arcachon is two-fold: growing oysters for the market and growing seed oysters for oyster growers elsewhere. The Arcachon basin and Marennes-Oléron region are the only regions in France where oysters reproduce naturally – in all other areas, young oysters are brought in from these two regions.

The flavors of oysters found around Arcachon range from the aroma of fresh vegetables and citrus fruit of Cap-Ferret oysters, to the rather sweet milkiness of those from the Arguin sandbank, to the vegetal/mineral tang of those from the Ile aux Oiseaux.

Those from the Ile aux Oiseaux owe their reputation to the plankton they consume during their fattening phase and to their greenish color acquired in claires, as in Marennes-Oléron.

Generally, many growers of Arcachon improve their oysters in a form of claire, which serves to cleanse the oysters of any impurities and keep them fresh.

Pictures: The Oyster Banks in Front of the Pinasse Cafe in the Basin de Arcachon


French Oysters are classified and sold depending on the size and weight. Pacific oysters and European oysters are rated differently:

Pacific oysters:

5 - "P": Petit (small)
4 and 3 - "M": Moyen (medium)
2 - "G": Grand (large)
1 and 0 - "TG": Très Grand (very large)

European oysters:

4 - "P": Petit (small)
3,2, and 1 - "M": Moyen (medium)
0 - "G": Grand (large)
00 - "TG": Très Grand (very large)

Pictures: French Oysters are Classified and Sold Depending on the Size and Weight

Bye-bye Arcachon

Thanks very much Raphael. We will certainly come back!

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Annette Schiller, with Raphael Doerfler, Earl Ostrea Chanca, during the previous visit. We will come back again!

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