Fred and Sandrine run an oyster business in Meze. Fred was born in Meze, Sandrine in Paris, and they now run the business that Fred’s parents set before Fred was born. We were lucky enough to be invited on a tour around their operation, to get some insight as to what goes into producing a plate of six oysters and a glass of Picpoul in the market on a Saturday morning.
First of all, we were stunned to find out that by the time your oyster is on your plate ready to eat, each one has been touched over fifteen times.
First of all, the baby oysters are put into a system of shelved netting. Five thousand oysters go into each shelf, and each net has six shelves. The nets are then carefully lowered into the etang de Thau, and attached to one of three ‘tables’ that Fred and Sandrine have, about 10 minutes off the coast.
Twice a week, these nets are carefully agitated, to make sure that the water can still flow through, and keep the baby oysters clean. At this stage, the oysters are about 2mm long.
Eventually, when the oysters are big enough to handle (about 10cm), then they are brought back to shore, and laid out in pairs on a series of plastic sheets resembling corrugated paper. Then a cord is laid on top, and a cement mix is piped on to each oyster pair, using a technique similar to making patisserie. Finally a single oyster is laid on top of each pair, to make groups of three oysters stuck to the cord. Each cord contains about 100 oysters, and at this stage, the cord weighs about 2kgs.
All the cords are taken back to the oyster beds, and attached to the tables. Each table holds about 1000 cords.
The oysters are very vulnerable at this point, and have to be protected from the dorade, who have been known to eat entire tables worth of oysters. They have strong, sharp teeth, and they crack open the oyster shells. Netting is put around the tables to try and keep the dorade out.
When we went out, we inspected some of the cords that had been placed there last October, and at this stage the cord weighed about 20kgs, but the oysters were still not big enough to eat.
When the oysters have grown to full size, they are brought back to the quai-side building, hauled up on pallets, and taken into the building via a conveyer belt. Each oyster is then scraped with a special implement, and moved to a three-stage series of soaking tanks to get rid of the impurities.
After this third soaking stage, the oysters are then ready to take to market. Each one is taken out of the tank, and tapped to make sure it is still alive, and that the shell is intact. A hollow sound is not a good one, and those oysters are thrown away.
When Fred was doing the market in Lyon, he would fill up his van at midnight on Friday night, and then leave at 2am to arrive in time for the early morning degustation on Saturday morning. Happily, they now do the market in Lamalou-les-Bains, so they fill up their van early in the morning, and drive the 45 minutes to the market. Their three tables of oyster beds are enough to support a busy Tuesday market, and a smaller Saturday market all year round.
Their last touch of each live oyster, is to carefully shuck them, and plate them up. They are served with either a half-lemon or shallot vinegar, and a glass of Picpoul Ormarine.
They then head back to Meze with a van full of empty oyster shells, ready to be recycled by the Maritime Organisation at Thau.
It’s a labour intensive occupation, and they are out on the sea twice a week, even in the middle of winter. At under €5 for a plate of 6 oysters, it’s hard to imagine paying so little for something so delicious, and which has demanded so much dedication and muscle power to produce.
Have a look at some of our oyster recipes in our Life section:-