Mediterranean oysters

Oysters are a popular appetizer in France. They are not very filling, low in fat and carbohydrates, but contain many vitamins and minerals. I’m not the only one who thinks that eating just a few oysters is good for your health. Within a very short time they help against dry eyes and the joints feel smoother. Even during a marathon they help to regain strength shortly before the finish line. At the beach pavilion Le St Pierre in the Herault department we meet oyster farmer Florent Tarburiech. The Frenchman has perfected the long-line cultivation of oysters. His oysters go through a real training camp to build muscle.

Oyster platter with seafood at the beach pavilion Le St Pierre Tarbouriech. Behind the lagoon lies the town of Sète / © Photo: Georg Berg
Oyster platter with seafood at the beach pavilion Le St Pierre Tarbouriech. Behind the lagoon lies the town of Sète / © Photo: Georg Berg

Low tide and high tide characterize the oyster – actually

Oysters are originally at home on shallow rocky coasts, where they feed on plankton from the seawater during high tide. At low tide, when they are in the air, they fold their thick and sharp-edged shell watertight. This strengthens the muscle and makes it so enduring that an oyster can even survive for two weeks in dry conditions. But how do oysters thrive in the Mediterranean, which has no tides like an ocean?

A hundred years ago, people in Japan began using a diving technique to simulate high and low tides. In the meantime, the technique of longline cultivation has opened up many waters worldwide for oyster farming. This is also the case in southern France at the Étang de Thau, an 18-kilometer-long lagoon. The lake is largely separated from seawater by a sandbank.

An den Bänken Étang de Thau hängen die Austern an Seilen und werden mehrmals am Tag für sechs Stunden ins vier Meter tiefe Wasser getaucht / © Foto: Georg Berg
At the banks of the Étang de Thau, the oysters hang from ropes and are dipped into the four-meter-deep water several times a day for six hours / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Bänke der Tarbouriech-Austern im Étang de Thau simulieren Ebbe und Flut, indem von Solar- und Windenergie betriebene Motoren die Austern alle 6 Stunden aus dem Wasser ziehen und nach weiteren 6 Stunden wieder eintauchen und nach weiteren 6 Stunden wieder eintauchen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The banks of Tarbouriech oysters in Étang de Thau simulate high and low tides as motors powered by solar and wind energy pull the oysters out of the water every six hours and then submerge them again after another six hours / © Photo: Georg Berg

Tinkerers of longline farming

At the Bassin de Thau, we have an appointment for dinner with Florent Tarbouriech. He is the best known of 600 oyster farmers on this lagoon off the Mediterranean. The climate and the mixture of salt and fresh water make the oysters grow especially fast here.

Florent Tarbouriech (r.) im Gespräch mit der Food-Journalistin Angela Berg / © Foto: Georg Berg
Florent Tarbouriech (r.) in conversation with food journalist Angela Berg / © Photo: Georg Berg

Oyster farming on a long leash

In the warm Mediterranean climate and nutrient-rich waters of Étang de Thau, oysters grow quickly. The lagoon has numerous freshwater tributaries as well as a freshwater spring located deep in the lake. Therefore, the water and also the oysters here are not as salty as directly in the Mediterranean Sea. The lake is largely separated from the seawater by a sandbar. The Canal du Midi, with its lime-rich water from the Pyrenees, helps provide the right material for the oysters to grow their thick shells.

For 20 years, Florent Tarbouriech has adapted the method of longline farming, originally from Japan, to local conditions. The perfect oyster, he reveals, achieves its targeted sweetness through a now-patented training program.

The length of time the oysters are in the air should increase with their age. This endurance training stimulates the oyster’s metabolic system, giving the flavor a sweet almond note.

Im warmen Mittelmeerklima und dem nährstoffreichen Wasser des Étang de Thau wachsen die Austern schnell. Die Lagune hat zahlreiche Süßwasserzuflüsse. Deshalb sind das Wasser und auch die Austern hier nicht so salzig wie direkt im Mittelmeer / © Foto: Georg Berg

The triploid oyster

In the months of February and August, the expert reveals, the oysters taste best to him. This is surprising, because the summer months (which do not have an R in their name) are not originally part of the best oyster season. Summer is the reproductive season for all types of oysters, when they change their typical taste. However, because demand is high in the summer, many oyster farmers have switched their operations to sterile oysters. Florent Tarbouriech sources his oyster larvae from Brittany. In hatcheries there, the triploid oysters, which have no reproductive phase with their triple set of chromosomes, are bred by crossing wild diploid eggs with tetraploid seeds.

Die Schale der Tarbouriech-Auster ist hell und leicht rosa. Das Austernfleisch lässt sich leicht ablösen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The shell of the Tarbouriech oyster is pale and slightly pink. The oyster meat is easy to peel off / © Photo: Georg Berg.
Zunächst wachsen die jungen Zucht-Austern in einem Netz heran, in dem sie nach sechs Stunden im Wasser für drei Stunden an die Luft gezogen werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Initially, the young farmed oysters grow in a net, where they are pulled into the air for three hours after six hours in the water / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die mit Zement an einer Leine fixierten Austern gewinnen im nährstoffreichen Wasser des Étang de Thau schnell an Größe / © Foto: Georg Berg
The oysters, which are fixed to a line with cement, quickly grow in size in the nutrient-rich water of the Étang de Thau and can then survive longer in the dry / © Photo: Georg Berg
In einer geführten Bootstour können Besuchergruppen die Tarbouriech Austernbänke im Étang de Thau aus der Nähe kennenlernen / © Foto: Georg Berg
On a guided boat tour, groups of visitors can get to know the Tarbouriech oyster beds in the Étang de Thau up close / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Austern werden sofort nach der Ernte für einige Tage in einem Klärbecken mit sprudelndem verdünnten Salzwasser veredelt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Immediately after harvesting, the oysters are refined for a few days in a clarifier with bubbling diluted salt water / © Photo: Georg Berg
Im Strandpavillion Tarbouriech Le St Barth werden große Mengen Austern frisch verzehrt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Large quantities of the oysters are eaten fresh at the Tarbouriech Le St Barth beach pavilion / © Photo: Georg Berg
Gebackene Austern im Strandpavillion Le St Pierre Tarbouriech / © Foto: Georg Berg
The oysters with thick shells and immaculate nacre are perfect for a gratin with bread crumbs, mint, verven oil, lemon and orange zest at the beach pavilion Le St Pierre Tarbouriech / © Photo: Georg Berg

The taste of the oyster

The oysters from the Mediterranean Sea are considered saltier compared to the Atlantic oysters of the Betragne or Normandy. However, the oyster farmers at Étang de Thau benefit from the inflow of established freshwater rivers into the lagoon. This location and the muscle training on the longlines influence the taste. The oysters from the nutrient-rich waters of the Étang de Thau are not very salty, and from a medium size, the muscle meat of the oysters develops a slight sweetness reminiscent of the taste of almonds. Florent Tabouriech’s oysters can be sampled during the summer months at the idyllically located beach restaurants Maison Tarbouriech Le St Barth’ in Marseillan and Le St Pierre near Loupian.

For those who prefer to approach the oyster theoretically, I recommend MFK Fisher’s little book from 1941 Consider the Oyster. The American author describes in an episode of her book that eating the first oyster has always cost overcoming. More on the subject of oysters in the article Oysters Always Go

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