Breton oyster farmers will argue that the quality of their oysters is due to their unrivalled expertise, handed down through the generations. This is possibly partly true, but the incredible taste is also due to Brittany’s outstanding waters. The strong currents constantly mix the water, giving the oysters all the plankton they need to ensure healthy growth.
Types of Oyster in Brittany
Brittany harvests 12 types of oyster (including the Belon, with its hint of hazelnut, which is native to Brittany and which some people consider to be the epitome of oyster eating), and the real oyster connoisseurs will tell you they all have their own distinctive taste.
The 12 main growing areas are: Cancale (on the Emerald Coast), Paimpol, Tréguier, Morlaix-Penzé, la Rade de Brest, the Abers, Aven Belon, Etel, Quiberon, the Golfe du Morbihan, Penerf, Le Croisic, as well as Rhuys and its wild oysters.
All these varieties of Breton oyster boast their own character. For example, the Pleine Mer oysters from the Baie de Quiberon are bred in open seas. They have a rich, full-bodied taste and a rich iodized flavour. Paimpol oysters have a strong taste and are more fleshy.
Oysters from St-Vaast, fleshy and iodized, are also famous for their nutty taste.
Milky oysters (or huitres laiteuses)
Some people prefer their oysters milky, some don’t. Personally, I prefer them milky, so long as they are not too large, but it really is a matter of taste! Have you ever heard of the “loi des mois en R” in France? It is a rule that says you should only eat oysters during the months containing the letter R, ie January, February, March, April, September, October, November and December.
The reason behind this is that the height of the reproductive season is from May to August. During that period, oysters produce a soft milky roe: la laitance. Neither the taste not the nutritional value of the oyster are affected. Having said that, connoisseurs enjoy the sweetness and slight crunchiness of those milky oysters.
However, in order to avoid this natural phenomenon and to allow people to eat non-milky oysters all year round, some producers grow sterile oysters (also called triploids: these don’t spawn, and also grow faster than reproducing oysters because the energy that normal oysters put into reproduction can instead be used for growth). Not everybody is a fan, so this is a way of pleasing oyster lovers all year round.
What nutritional value do oysters have?
Not only do oysters taste delicious but they also contain proteins of superior quality with essential amino acids which the body needs for tissue formation and repair. They are also an excellent source of vitamin B12.
So, when you are next in Brittany, head for Pénerf for instance, and pick up a dozen or two of oysters!
Are there different ways to enjoy oysters?
Absolutely. The traditional and most common way to enjoy a Breton oyster (or any oyster, for that matter) in France, is the simplest one: raw, with nothing added. However. they can be seasoned with just a squeeze of lemon juice (my favourite), some ground pepper, or even with shallot and wine-vinegar dressing. This will help release the full flavour of the oyster. One important point to mention is that it is best to always make sure that the oyster is alive before eating it. Simply poke it with the point of a knife or fork, which will make the oyster flinch.
It can also be accompanied with a crusty baguette and salted butter. Another way is to eat it hot, gratinée, steamed or grilled, for no longer than 5 minutes.
During the Christmas period, oysters, considered an absolute delicacy in France, are eaten alongside crépinettes: a flat, round, patty made with seasoned sausage meat (usually pork) and wrapped in a netting called crépine (caul fat), hence the name. These can be flavoured with truffle or white wine. Last Christmas we discovered Armagnac flavoured crépinettes. An absolute feast, by far our favourite so far!
Oysters come in different sizes, which are numbered: the smaller the number, the bigger the oyster. Our number of choice is number 3, neither too big nor small, an average size. You can buy oysters in a basket called bourriche. It is regulation for the bourriche to display the size, weight and guaranteed minimum number of oyster on the packaging.
When we’re in France we go to the market at La Roche Bernard on a Thursday morning. It’s a bit of a tradition for us to pick up a dozen Penerf oysters there (Penerf is just a few kilometres away) and have them for lunch with a glass of Muscadet. The thought of enjoying a Breton oyster washed down with crisp, white, local wine, is a dream.
Go on, treat yourself, you won’t regret it!