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The Oysters of Locmariaquer is a vivid, fascinating account of how Belon oysters are cultivated. This National Book Award-winning travelogue is also an ...
The Oysters of Locmariaquer is a vivid, fascinating account of how Belon oysters are cultivated. This National Book Award-winning travelogue is also an excursion into the historical background, myths, and legends of Brittany. At the center of this uncommon narrative, presented in turn after turn of slowly accumulating drama, are the lives of people who make the oyster growing possible.
What you notice in the month of May is the tiles, like roof tiles but white, stacked by thousands at one point after another along the shore. There are twenty to thirty million of them altogether, all on what amounts to practically nothing on an ordinary road map of France, that is, a few miles of shoreline around the mouth of the Gulf of the Morbihan, from which this southern department of Brittany gets its name. It is Breton for Little (bihan) Sea (mor) and in fact the gulf has certain characteristics of a sea, with its own human and marine distinctions and its own violent little Gibraltar where the tides work like angry dragons and the German gun emplacements still stand. The oysters are bred in the gulf proper, along both banks of the estuary that branches from it, the River of Auray, and around the point in the other estuary at La Trinite. A brush-stroke and that is the end of it.
Not of oystering in general, of course. That is big business at many other points on the Brittany coast, and elsewhere. The oyster is not a creature of the open sea. It needs bays, coves, estuaries, and the coast of Brittany is the perfect geological crochet-work, after some terrible kitten had got through with it; if pulled out straight itwould probably reach across the Atlantic and if you threw in the islands there is no telling where you would end up. So there are quite a few places where you can see the beautiful patterns of the parcs at low tide and the other shapes and paraphernalia of the trade.
They may have to do with either or both of the two European species of edible oyster. One is the plump Crassostrea angulata, called the Portuguese, which is cheaper and faster-growing and is not a leading character in this story, although in volume of production it is way ahead. It is a relative newcomer to France, having made its first appearance on the French coast, not in Brittany but farther south, in the middle of the last century. It can be marvelous enough by ordinary gastronomic standards, but the oyster of oysters, the most expensive, is the indigenous Ostrea edulis -- called Armoricaine, from the ancient name for Brittany (ar-mar: by the sea), because Brittany raises 8o per cent of the world production of the species. They often appear as "Belon" on the menu, but that refers to their maturing phase, not their point of origin; in the region they are never called anything but les plates, the fiat ones.
Almost all of them come from this one small pocket of the Morbihan, in a radius of a few miles out from the village of Locmariaquer, at the mouth, or maw, of the Gulf. At various stages of development they are all sent away to be fattened in other waters, some as late as three or four years old; almost all, and the few that stay to the end are skinny and undernourished. It is not a place for an oyster to grow up. The specialty and you might say obsession of the area is raising the babies of the species, le naissain, in English parlance "seed," "set," or "spat," the first stage in the long, hard, delicate process of producing an oyster fit to eat. In this the section has no rival worth mentioning. It is the world center for that one aspect of ostreiculture -- or conchyliculture: it sounds very nice in French; and the baby Armoricaine has no rival in it. The concentration of shore-space and human effort toward the one single and singular end has a quality of dreams. "Tout le monde fait ca ici." The Portuguese oyster, which has been gradually moving farther north, might or might not do well in these waters, and might or might not drive out the plate; it has finally been admitted at two points in the Morbihan but right here there is still a law against it.
Not quite tout le monde. The proportion of men to women in the oyster-work is about one to ten; most of the men are away at sea, in the navy or merchant marine. There are some small-scale farmers, the usual little village bourgeoisie of storekeepers and so on, and in summer almost everybody does something else. The men may switch to sardine fishing up at Quiberon, the women get jobs in the vacation trade or the sardine canneries, also at Quiberon. Only the owner or a lone employee will be keeping watch over the parks all the time, and getting equipment ready for fall. It is the great reality just the same, only waiting to take over again when the last of the "Parigots" (Parisians) and other tourists have gone. To think of life is to think of oysters, all year round, almost as if you could hear all those millions of them breathing when the tide is out.
The end product is exquisite, the work grueling, and so badly paid, for everybody but a few of the owners, you wonder what keeps people so cheerful.
It is all on an artisan scale; the chantiers are small. There are over two thousand of them in the Morbihan, some just family affairs, a majority employing no more than ten or twelve workers at the height of the season, whether raising only the naissain or older oysters as well. The few big-shot producers, known as "les gros richards" because they are the rich of the region, with a TV in the house and a domestic servant in carpet slippers, are a little scornful of the seed business, whether or not they have parks of their own elsewhere. They buy from the small producers as many babies as they raise themselves and take them on from there, a year or two here, then away, then back for processing if this is the main base. . . .
Excerpted from The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark Copyright © 2006 by Eleanor Clark. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 4, 2010
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