Visiting an oyster farm
Half the fun of visiting an oyster farm on Arcachon Bay on a crisp, sunny day is getting there. We boarded the catamaran Kalume in the resort town of Arcachon, immediately falling in love with the colorful gingerbread cottages, sandy beach, and twin piers jutting into the bay.
Once onboard, we motored past scenic villages along the shores and learned that because of the tides, Arcachon Bay varies greatly in area (from 150km to 40km) depending on when you measure. We spotted Landes Forest, a pine forest of four million acres (half the size of the state of New Jersey) that was planted by man on a flatland where sheep were once raised. It is now a protected, renewable resource and recreational paradise for cyclists, hikers and walkers. We also breezed past the peninsula of Cap Ferret and the Dune of Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe.
The French government introduced paid vacations in 1936 so these bayside towns (much like those in the Hamptons or Cape Cod in the States) are uber-popular vacation getaways. Although year-round sunshine attracts visitors and inspires artists across all four seasons, the populations of these small towns swell as much as tenfold in summer.
A major portion of France’s oyster bounty has been harvested from these waters since the 1860s.
It is estimated that the Arcachon Basin produces 8-10,000 tons of oysters a year. Traditionally served at Christmas and at New Year’s Eve meals—or more commonly, with a glass of white or rose wine any other time of year – raw oysters topped with a squeeze of zesty lemon are an integral part of French culture.
We visited an oyster shack called Chez Yannick, one of many only steps away from the oyster beds. Farmer Yannick told us how oysters release their eggs into the water each year in late July and attach themselves to artificial beds. The oysters evolve from birth and become edible over a period of 18 months to three years. We watched him shuck the oysters by hand (quite expertly), and we sampled them fresh on the half shell. Although I’m usually a fried-oyster person, these (served with crusty French bread and a glass of wine) were the best I had ever tasted.
It turned out that this was just an aperitif! Before heading back to our motor coach, we boarded the catamaran and headed off to Cap Ferret, where we enjoyed a relaxing seafood lunch at L’Escale. Here, at one of the oldest restaurants on the peninsula, we dined and sipped wines with locals on a terrace overlooking the Bay.