WORLDFOOD – Ode to the Farmers of the Sea

01 Oct 2003

The Arcachon Basin, opening onto the Atlantic Ocean, is the largest area of wetland in the Landes region. An average three kilometers wide, its entrance channel is formed by the elegant Dune du Pilat to the south and Cap Ferret to the north. Between these two points a treacherous tide carves out narrow seawater channels, known as passes, tight corridors that snake through the sandbanks and form the celebrated Banc d’Arguin. The unknown element of the marine currents within this characteristic oceanic universe can pose unexpected hazards, not just for holidaymakers but also for the most expert sailors and fishermen. It makes the physical formation of the passes so mercurial that oyster breeders have given up hatching their mollusks along the sandbanks at this point of the basin.

Until 1852, oyster fishing was completely uncontrolled and the mollusks were harvested in almost total freedom from the basin’s natural beds. But the results of such untrammeled fishing soon began to manifest themselves. The oysters started to become scarce and there was an ever more pressing need for an overview of the situation to avoid ruining the natural balance of the basin. Hence the bodies responsible for marine franchises decided to restrict the amounts that could be fished, setting limits that would allow the oyster colonies to multiply: the oyster breeder would still be able to benefit from the resources of the marine environment, but without depleting them.

The only current franchises cover areas inside the basin. From the mid-19th century and the establishment of modern oyster breeding, the Bassin d’Arcachon, with its harbors and hatcheries, became, in effect, the realm of the parqueur (the word derived from parc, park, oyster hatcheries being known as breeding parks in French). And these farmers of the sea, with their suntanned, wind-beaten faces, are its soul.

From the capture of oyster larvae, caught by suspending ‘collectors’, cloths whitened with lime, in the sea, to the emergence of a mollusk ready for savoring takes three years of continuous work.

Fifteen years ago, after years of dirtying his hands with motorboat oil, J. P. decided to take up his father-in-law’s occupation and become an oyster breeder. No-one would ever have thought that he and his charming wife, a pediatrician, would have ended up dedicating their lives to oysters and the vagaries of the tides. Well before low tide, J. P. loads up his work materials: pitchforks, wheelbarrows, spades and rakes—everything you might need for working in the fields. Yet his destination is not green countryside but the moving scenery of the waters whose daily comings and goings mark out the rhythm of Bassin life. In any event, it might be the afternoon rather than the morning that he has to go to sea, it depends on the tides. His equipment is stowed in his trusty pinasse, a flat-bottomed boat, lying at anchor in the port of Meyran Est. Before the water gets too low, J.P., accompanied by his father and his two dogs, real four-legged ‘sea wolves’, lifts anchor and sets sail for the oyster beds.

Once at the first of the pignots, the wooden stakes that mark out the breeding grounds, the little group waits patiently for the waters to recede completely and reveal the muddy seabed. This is the ideal time for a snack. In the distance, in the now dry harbors of the Basin, the boats look like old pachyderms ready to expire, noses dropped down into the mud.

Within J. P.’s various franchises, massed ranks of metal plates hold up pocket-shaped nets holding the thousands of oysters being bred. Or sometimes the traditional method is followed, where the young oysters are ‘planted’ directly on the base of the beds.

The work follows the time and the tides. The mesh-size of the nets supporting the oyster bags varies according to the size of the oysters they contain. The bags are regularly turned, by hand, so the shells develop a round, even shape. Today, J. P.’s main task might be cleaning out the hatcheries, using rakes and pitchforks to collect the plentiful algae and oyster shells that cover the seabed.

Oysters feed on plankton, which they find within the water currents, but they are prey to a large variety of aquatic feeders; it is their shells that provide the protection against voracious predators such as sea snails, gilt-head bream, star fish and crabs. These last are particularly rapacious. If you break open one of the wild oysters anchored to the stakes, it takes just a few moments before these ravenous fat crustaceans, large and small, appear, drawn by the alluring aromas emanated by the mollusk.

Man’s nasal passages, though, are not attracted by the oyster; it is the appearance that provides the initial impact, even though the sight of its tough, stone-like shell does not inspire great interest in neophytes. Everyone knows that it is only the pearl oysters from warm waters which contain a ‘treasure’, but it is wrong to think that the Arcachon oysters are any less seductive: their pearl is a treasure for the palate instead.

Using a knife inserted into the crack of the shell, the muscle that keeps the oyster closed is split, the upper valve can be opened and the mollusk, glossy and still alive, with an indefinite color, varying from white to gray, revealed. Tasting one there, sitting on a pinasse, is like drinking in the essence of the sea; one’s senses are excited by its briny taste and refined softness.

But now the tide has turned and the waters have become too deep to work the beds. For J. P. it is time to return to his ‘hut’, his warehouse on the water’s edge where his wife has already been working for some hours.

When they are three years old, the oysters are transferred to discharge basins called claires situated near the hut for the ‘soaking’ stage. This not only frees them from any impurities (excess salt, grains of sand, small algae etc.), but means that they cease following the movements of the tides and will remain closed when dispatched. It is M. whose able hands carry out the calibration (i.e. the division of the shells according to their size). The oysters are then boxed or packed in baskets and sent for sale, ready to be savored.

And day after day, J.P. and M. work in harmony with the microcosm that is the Bassin d’Arcachon.

Séverine Petit is a student of International Diplomatic Sciences at the University of Trieste and contributes to the website

Adapted by Maureen Ashley.

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