After my brief visit with Cap’Helix Escargot Farm, I made my way up to the north of Brittany. I spent the night just outside of Cancale and headed to the coast in the morning. Cancale is a perfect, provincial seacoast town, seemingly locked in time with seafood hawkers, old boats and ancient stone buildings marching up the hills and away from the sea. I went to visit Les Parcs Saint Kerber, a sustainable oyster farm and one of their best customers, Chef Olivier Roellinger.
It was a beautiful morning, clear and crisp with a sweet ocean scent on the wind. Cancale has long been world famous for their oysters. In fact King Louis XIV would have them shipped daily to Versailles, an enormous feat in those days and King Henry IV would eat more than 20 dozen in a sitting. Marie Antoinette also had them shipped to Versailles by the ton and Napoleon was known to eat several dozen before every battle to increase vigor and strength. The setting is perfect for their cultivation with cold clean water and the largest tide in Europe with variations in water level up to 15 meters. When the tide is out in full, the water pulls back to reveal the multitude of oyster gardens as far as the eye can see and the crystal blue water is a small sliver on the horizon.The history of the oysters of Cancale is a long one. From the time these tasty mollusks were discovered here until the 18th century, they were harvested with from the sea floor with no regard for the preservation of the population or the environment. From 10,000 to 20,000 tons of the local flat oyster were taken per year and the beds were turning to ruin. In 1759 there was given a royal decree that no oyster could be harvested from the 1st of April until the 31st of October, thus giving rise to the month of R rule that you still hear about today. This is the time of year when the oysters turn “milky” and breed. Most oyster farmers these days grow triploid or hybrid oysters that do not breed and do not go through this milky period so that they can be harvested year round. It wasn’t until 1858 that oysters were farmed rather than just harvested from the ocean floor. It was then that the first wooden “beds” were built and the structures used haven’t changed that much till this day. The materials to create the beds however have gone through many transitions from ceramic tile to metal and now most oysters are raised on cylindrical pieces of plastic known as “Chinese hats”
When I arrived in the morning the tide was high and the water clear. I was greeted by Stephan Alleaume who runs the business with his brother in law. I started my visit in the cleaning and sorting area where the oysters are checked for blemishes and imperfections and sorted by weight. They are first checked by hand and then fed into a centrifuge like machine that pops them out into different baskets depending on the weight. They are then cleaned and put into a large holding tank. During this time they are trained to stay closed. The oysters are pulled from the tanks and left in to the open air, then plunged again into the water. The oysters naturally open to study their environment and look for food, but if they open during the shipping process, they are likely to dry out and die. “Some take longer to learn the lesson than others” said Stephan so some stay in training or go back to sea. They are removed from the tank and each one is knocked against another to determine whether or not they are still alive. It’s an amazingly fast process and though it was demonstrated to me, there was not much distinction in the noises made. “It takes some practice, and a good ear” I was told. The oysters, finally are packed in wooden crates with a seaweed lining that is harvested locally. The oysters from here are shipped all over the world.
Saint Kerber sells up to five varieties of oysters of differing size and quality as well as importing sustainably caught seafood, which they then wholesale to their many customers. The types of oyster available varies by the seasons, there were three in season when I arrived and I got to taste them all, lucky me. The first variety is a more typical oyster known as the deep oyster, these are known for their deep shells and superior flavor, nutty and smooth and everything you want an oyster to be.
The next is a flat oyster, totally different in looks with a round, flat shell, beige in color. They are the variety that has made Cancale famous. They can grow to enormous size, it’s possible even for them to grow up to 1 kilo in weight, though you wouldn’t want to eat one at that size. The flavor is very strong, high in iodine and more acidic than your typical oyster, though prized for these flavors, I personally found it to be a bit too much. The last I tried was the Tsarskaya and these were truly incredible. Saint Kerber has won several awards for the Tsarskaya. The flavor began like a typical oyster then bust with sugar and a milky almond flavor and the flesh was more toothsome than the others. It was by far my favorite and of course the most expensive. Most of the Tsarskaya are shipped fresh to Russia.
I will say again that it was truly an honor to meet a man so passionate and dedicated to his craft and to food. Chef Roellinger is also famous for his spice shops throughout France, though since this visit I have had the opportunity to visit one of the farms that he works with, so we can catch up on that another time.
After our time, I made my way back to the sea and rolled up my pants to explore the gardens. The tide was coming back and the sea bed was muddy, but I got to see quite a bit of what I had been hearing about all day. As I made my way back to shore, so did the tractors, workers and flat bottom boats. The boats were full to the brim with freshly harvested oysters and hawkers on the shore were opening the shells by the hundreds for hungry tourists yearning to taste the famous mollusks. I stayed until the sun went down and gazed at Mont Saint Michele in the distance. A perfect close to a day I will not soon forget.
Up next is my visit to Paris! Just a little side note; I apologize again for the infrequency of my posts here, my access to a good internet connection in combination with my time spent traveling and working with farmers, makes it difficult to post as much as I would like. Rest assured however that the story will be told in full.
To learn more about Olivier Roellinger please visit http://www.maisons-de-bricourt.com
and Saint Kerber Oysters please visit http://www.saintkerber.com/