While in America it's the season to be merry, in Paris, that merriment isn't found under a tree- it's found inside an oyster's shell. Here, deep winter means oysters- the traditional food of Christmas and New Year's Eve. In fact, almost 50% of the 130,000 tons of oysters annually produced in France are eaten over the holiday season, and all of those oysters are raw. Oyster vendors are all over the Paris streets, and every bistro seems to have scores of patrons sitting in outside in winter coats, savoring their briny, freshly-shucked shellfish with copious quantities of dry white wine.
Much of the American shellfish consumerism has echoes of the French tradition. Today, the Chesapeake is just beginning to differentiate between oysters from different regions and to brand each variety as unique. For the French, distinguishing the different properties of 'merroir' is old news. They are oyster lovers, going all the way back to the first oyster connoisseurs, the Romans, whose oyster culture and obsession were as much a part of the Empire's legacy as viticulture and wine. The Romans conquered the Gallic Celts and set about sampling their shellfish- and when possible, shipped them back to Rome for the luxury seafood market. As with the English oyster tradition that I explored in Chesapeake Oysters, the Romans helped the French recognize the rare treat they had abounding in their vast coastline.
The oysters the Romans favored and that later became an essential part of the French diet in the 19th century are not the same species of oysters modern Parisians enjoy, by and large. The native Crassostrea edulis- wide, flat, round and with a taste like licking a copper penny- were decimated by mysterious diseases in the 1920's when oyster science was still in its infancy, and a different species, Crassostrea angulata or the 'Portuguese oyster,' was introduced to continue to support the market. The Portuguese oyster was widely popular (and is still invokes much oyster nostalgia today amongst those who remember its apparently unparalleled flavor) until the 1960's and 1970's, when two diseases, Marteilia refringens and Bonamia ostrae destroyed the oyster stocks. By the late 1970's, France's oyster production had declined from 20,000 tons to only 2,000 tons a year. In response, the French embraced a non-native species- Crassostrea gigas or the "creuse" oyster- as part of the state's "Resur" plan. The introduced oysters flourished where the angulata had perished, and today gigas oysters are now ubiquitous in the country's oyster regions- representing 90% of France's annual oyster production. Edulis varieties are still produced, though they are much more rare, and as you might guess, significantly more expensive than the common gigas varieties.
All this history and context said, though, oysters are meant to be eaten- and to help guide consumers along the way, France has developed a framework for its oyster growers, differentiating by size and by intensity of cultivation. The sizing is simple- oyster range between a size 5 at the smallest and a size 0 at the largest. Unlike the States, where plenty of folks will fork over a premium for a Kumamoto the size of a squirrel's ear (many women in particular disdain large oysters- take that as you will), here bigger oysters cost more. It makes sense in terms of sheer volume, so those who prefer smaller oyster should take note- France will treat you right!
The other method of differentiation between oysters has to do with production quality. France has seven different oyster production zones that are treated much like wine appellations on land. Oysters from these regions, ranging from Normandy in the north to the Thau lagoon in the Mediterranean, all have specific flavor profiles reflecting the salinity, tidal activity, and algal concentration of the local environment. Also, depending on location, oysters might be raised in bags, on ropes, or through extensive culture (scattered on the bottom of the sea). However, just raising oysters to market maturation is not considered enough. Unlike in the United States, where a strong taste of the sea is preferred, the French like their oysters fat and sweet. To achieve this, oysters are finished in man-made salt-water ponds known as 'claires.' These ponds are infused with pulses of freshwater, and their high algal content allows oysters transferred from the ocean to fatten and to take on unique, complex flavor profiles. The longer oysters are finished in claires, the more their taste matures and the fleshier they become.
Often, middlemen will buy oysters from regions like Normandy and Brittany known to produce meaty shellfish, and transfer them to claires for finishing, selling the final product at a higher profit. These claire oysters are differentiated by how much volume their meat takes up within the oyster shell. The longer they've been in a claire, the more algae they've eaten and the fatter they are. Salt water oysters, known as 'fines' are the least fat, and 'speciales' are the next weighty. 'Fine de claire' is reserved for claire-finished oysters of the next highest quality, while 'speciale de claires,' and 'pousses' move up the scale to 'perles' at the pinnacle.
All in all, it is a rigorous and intricate system developed over 120 years. Oysters here are strictly cultivated- ultimately a boon for the consumer. All this information is honestly quite more than most oyster eaters are interested in, so in my following post, I'll tackle the French oyster CliffNotes. What to choose? Which oysters are good? How are they served? What qualities define a 'good' French oyster? What is the French custom for eating them? What wine should I order to pair them with?
Check back later this week for your guide to ordering and enjoying oysters like a pro in France! In the meantime, as the French say, Bon Annee (Happy New Year) and more importantly, bon appetit!