Oysters, Oysters Everywhere

Oyster Farm near Cancale

While Tuesday was officially the first day of spring, I’ve been watching the change coming for the past couple of weeks–planting season has arrived, flowers are in bloom and the weather has taken a turn for the better!  We can get out and walk again.  Simply walking the coast and taking in the views is one of the best things you can do in Brittany.  For those looking to combine tasty shellfish with a nice walk, head to Cancale like we did this past weekend.  Walkers, tourists and just those out looking for a nice stroll can enjoy the circular walk starting in Cancale and heading out to the Pointe du Grouin–look one way and you can admire the Mont Saint Michel and its Bay, look the other and take in the town and its oyster beds.

The area around the Mont Saint Michel Bay is famous for its shellfish, in particular oysters and mussels.  Cancale lies halfway between Saint Malo and the Mont Saint Michel (about a 10-15 minute drive from Saint Malo).  The town is a byword for oysters in France.  Oysters have been harvested here for centuries.  The Romans started farming oysters in Italy in the 1st century BC and exported their knowledge continent-wide as their empire grew.  While generations have been enjoying Cancale’s oysters, systematic oyster farming in France is far more recent dating to the 18th century.  Today, Cancale specializes in two main species of oysters.  Belon (flat) oysters are native to the Bay and particularly prized.  Due to their popularity, they almost disappeared thanks to a combination of overfishing and disease.  While strict limits are now in place to prevent overfishing, disease remains a recurring problem.  Japanese “cupped” oysters are also farmed here.  Unlike the Belon oysters which remain underwater, the cupped oysters are visible in their cages at low tide (see photo above).  The Japanese oysters were introduced because they are hardier and more disease-resistant.

Bouchot Mussel Beds in the Distance

Today, locals produce over 3,500 tons of cupped oysters and 1,000 tons of Belon oysters.  You can see a good part of the 7.3 square kilometres of oyster beds from the town pier.  Walking along Cancale’s waterfront, you will find any number of little stalls set up selling local oysters and occasionally other shellfish as well.  Oysters are a traditional French Christmas and New Year’s treat–my Father-in-Law swears by Cancale oysters every year!  If you’re feeling hungry, local restaurants specialize in showing off the local shellfish.  Those looking for a culinary splurge, should head to Olivier Roellinger’s Michelin-starred restaurant Le Coquillage in nearby Saint Méloir des Ondes.  (If you can’t afford his restaurant but still want to experience a little of Roellinger’s magic and amazing knowledge of spices, check out his spice boutique in Cancale–1 rue Duguesclin or in Saint Malo’s Intra-Muros–12 rue Saint Vincent.)

Hanging out with the Mussels (Two Summers Ago but my only close-up Bouchot photo)

Mussels are also a coveted local specialty.  To be honest, I don’t particularly care for oysters but I love mussels and when they’re in season, I buy them every week.  France is Europe’s third-largest mussel producer and the Mont St Michel bouchot mussel’s are the cream of the crop.  The Mont Saint Michel mussel are the first (and for now only) marine product to be granted AOC status in France.   AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and requires a product to be farmed/raised/produced in a specific geographical area.  Mussels from the Bay are small, plump and tasty–eat them steamed in white wine with a little garlic and parsley and your taste buds will sing.  While I cannot imagine the Bay without its mussels, they are a (relatively) recent addition to the landscape.  Bouchot mussel farming started in the Bay in 1954 although the bouchot technique has been around for centuries!  The mussels are wound in cords around stakes driven into the sand and take 12-18 months to reach maturity.  If you’re willing to get your feet wet, you can get close to the stakes at low-tide.  Laura and Elise were fascinated by the baby mussels–the sand and chance to play in the water was simply an added bonus!  If you’re visiting here, you’ll have to wait a little longer to try the mussels.  The mussels season runs from July to November every year.  If you’re in the area, enjoy your visit, enjoy the coastline and enjoy the shellfish too!

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