Oysters always intrigued me. Living in more extreme climates of the country and with no support of my vocation, my experience of oysters were mostly limited to the diluted oyster sauce which is a must for any stand-alone Chinese restaurant worth its salt. My first fresh oyster wasn’t that grand either. In a five-star hotel restaurant’s sea food buffet a tiny shell almost drained of its oceanic essence left a lot to be desired for.
But my French excursion changed that. My whirlwind excursion found me and other 20 odd professionals at the Bay of Arcachon. While the azure blues of the south of France have good reasons to be acclaimed, the Bay too can hold its own. And this is beyond discovering the gastronomic wonders of the oysters. The Bay is home to Dune du Pyla — well known as the highest sand dune in Europe. The steep 108 metres high and growing, sand dune starts right at the sea shore and acts as a barricade between the sea and the lush green coniferous forests that cover the Gironde region. It is no easy task to conquest the steep height of the dune either, and as suggested by locals, it is best done barefoot. The sight from the precipice is awe inspiring; with the mighty blue Atlantic on one side, the lush greenery of conifers on the other and in the middle you atop a sand dune!
You also see across the bay the village which was our destination. As the 1-1.5 hours long ferry ride drew closer to the village, I could see little houses lined across the shore and all of them had a little track via which the boats of the house could be directly released into the waters. Off the ferry, short walk across the jetty and I was in the village walking narrow pebbled streets, in search of this little restaurant. A small nondescript place of blue and white, as I entered the table was laid.
Oysters are a mainstay in the region and almost all families harvest oysters. The original oysters, the flat oysters, disappeared from the region in the 18th century, what is available today are the Portuguese oysters and the Japanese oysters which fall under the appellation of Arcachon oysters. Because of the movements of the tides, the water in the bay always remains fresh making it the perfect breeding grounds for the oysters. From the ferry, one can see these tall poles sticking out of the water; these are the areas where the oysters are bred and harvested.
Even though the degustation delight were not the prettiest to look at, the excitement was palpable. Trays full of shucked palm sized oysters awaited us. After a quick training from our extremely knowledgeable and English speaking French guide we were left to our own devices with the oysters. The instruction was simple, detach the muscle from the edge of the shell with the fork, squeeze a bit of lemon and gulp it down. So went the excited hands, prying apart the muscle from the shell, taking care that the contained liquids do not spill. A nice twist of lemon and down the hatch. The taste is invariably salty; the lemon (unlike Indian limes) gives a citric sweetness to the sea brine. The muscle itself weighs down on your palate for a brief second but never lingering. And as it all swiftly slithers down the tongue and throat it gives a true taste of the sea. The French prefer their oysters au naturel, so it was time to do it like the French. Without the hint of citrus, the power of the salt is overpowering but it is by far the best way to taste the entirety of an oyster. It is like a mouthful of sea, an explosion in the taste buds like no other. The salt seemed to tame itself the moment it came in contact with the mouth. It is said that oysters from other regions like that of Normandy or the Mediterranean are more salty and less delicate than the Arcachon variety. It would seem like the logic of terroir doesn’t just work for wine alone. I wouldn’t know or be the best judge either, all I know is that I am hooked for life.
Once addicted to the taste, it is never enough as I discovered. I found my self happily slurping down portions of those who chose not to venture beyond a mere taste. And there was more for the taking. The only thing that did stop me was that in a country far away from home, it will not be a good idea to beget a stomach infection.