The festive season is here, and as all Normans know, there’s nothing better than enjoying a fresh oyster or two at this time of year! A typical family Christmas menu in Normandy begins with oysters, followed by the main course. But did you know that the best way to eat an oyster is to chew it? This was one of the culinary tips I learnt when I paid a visit to Normandy’s major oyster production region, the town of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula.
The one and only time I had previously sampled this delicacy, I’d swallowed it back, as I had thought this was the correct thing to do, and was overwhelmed by slimy texture and salty flavour. Now, years later in an oyster farm in Normandy, I learnt that my tasting method had been all wrong and it was time to have another try.
I paid a visit to the oyster farm Tatihou GAEC – named after the tiny island that sits just a few hundred metres from the shore at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. I met Stéphanie Lefèvre, one half of the sister-brother team who run the business that they inherited from their parents in 2003.
Stéphanie told me that the sea between Tatihou island and Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is the best place for oyster production in Normandy, hence the name of their business. As children, they would swim out to Tatihou and spend summer days exploring and picnicking on the island. Blissful as this sounds, I’d always wanted to visit this tiny island for another reason – every year it hosts an international maritime music festival called Les Traversées de Tatihou, where the public are able to cross to the island on foot at low tide.
Over 40 oyster farms are based on this spot of shore. When the tide’s out, the beach reveals row upon row of tables that stretch out to sea, all laden with sacks all full of oysters. The sacks are made of tough plastic with holes punched through, big enough for vital water to seep in, but small enough to keep predators out.
As the oysters grow, every few months the sacks are brought back to base. The oysters are washed and sorted into new sacks to correspond with their size.
The youngest oysters are kept in the deepest sea, the oldest in the shallowest so that as they grow, they adapt to being out of water.
Stéphanie tells me that in spite of Normandy being one of France’s biggest oyster producers, the sea here is too cold and the currents too strong to farm baby oysters. Instead, they buy the babies from suppliers from Charente Maritime, further south on France’s west coast. When she first took over the business, Stéphanie remembers that buying baby oysters was the most daunting task. If she hadn’t chosen quality oysters, with three years of farming before being sold at a lower price, it would have been a costly error to make.
Stéphanie asked four different suppliers to come to her office at the same time so she could compare their offers. She tested water samples of each but she said that the final decision was made more based on instinct than science. When, three years later they harvested exceptional quality oysters, she realised that the years of immersion in the art of oyster farming as a child had paid off!
When I ask Stéphanie what was best about her job, she tells me that she loves the direct contact with nature. Working in-tune with the tides, they pick up the oyster sacks morning and night and can only do this when the tide’s low. At times this can mean extremely long days but as Stephanie says, being alone, watching an extraordinary sunrise over the sea is more than worth that 4am start.
For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.