There is something almost unreal about the gulf of Morbihan and all its 12 000 hectares (29,650 acres or 46.3 mi2), locked in from the onslaught of the Atlantic Ocean, on the west coast of France. It is more of an inland lake, populated by a host of islands, creeks and bays and silently supervised by those imposing Breton houses, with their steeply sloping, grey-slated roofs and their walls of dark brown granite stone, now often white-washed, scattered all along the shoreline. Now in September, they all seem as empty and abandoned as the lines of moored boats whose masts stand in the reflection of the water like alignments of menhirs and pillars of the megalithic sites that adorn the landscape in Brittany, especially here along the penininsulas of the gulf. In a sense, the gulf resembles the oval interior of an oyster, which is closed in by the long flatter shell of the peninsula of Rhuys, to the south, whilst to the north, the rough and tumble of the land eventually arms itself round into the peninsula and deeper shell of Locmariaquer. For it is only here, in this narrow opening between Locmariaquer and Port Navalo, that the sea can be filtered by the huge area of the gulf. This picturesque village, famed for its prehistoric sites and oysters, has been lovingly portrayed in the book, The Oysters of Locmariaquer, by Eleanor Clark. Beyond its western borders lie the marshland, dikes and pockets of isolated Brittany farmsteads, and even further the sand dunes on the bay of Quiberon and the Atlantic Ocean.
– Map of the gulf of Morbihan
The name, Morbihan, means “little sea” in the Breton language and the monumental cairn on the island of Gavrinis near its entrance, testifies to the gulf’s rich historical importance. But it is its oyster that today plays an inherent part in its embarras de richesses. It used to be almost the ancestral home of the flat European oyster before it was ravaged by the pests of the late 1960’s and late 70’s. The oyster today is the creuse, the Crassostrea gigas, the Pacific oyster, introduced in the years between 1969 and 1977 to save the French oyster industry from collapsing. New threats appear, almost yearly, and for the last few years heavy mortalities have been occurring in the young and now adult oyster. There is talk of how long the oyster profession can survive, given the taxing problems it faces.
A few passionate oyster cultivators, ostréiculteurs, have joined forces and are convinced the only way forward is to farm in the traditional way, that is, only use spat born in the open sea. They have formed an association called Ostréiculteur traditionnel – whose slogan is ”Huîtres nées en mer” (Oysters born at sea), which has a national membership of about 70 members, although, according to its chairman, Benoît Le Joubioux1, about 10% of French oyster growers, about 300 in all, refuse to use seed from hatcheries. The association is governed by a charter that its members are obliged to follow and builds on the ethic of sustainability and collective responsibility. All seed which is bought cannot be obtained from any of the hatcheries that now have been set up by private and state organisations. Its members see real dangers in spat raised in hatcheries, since only a few genitors are used, which in turn restrict the genetic variability of the seed. This and the triploid’s accelerated growth during the summer months increase its vulnerability to environmental stressors. However, more recently demands for a moratorium on the use of triploid seed from hatcheries have been raised from several areas, the latest being Normandy, because of the fears that the horrendous mortalities have originated with such spat from these sources since it is the triploids that are dying at such a devastating rate.
According to one French blogger2, it is yet another case of a struggle between the David of a number of small oyster farmers and the Goliath of multinational corporations owning the hatcheries and laboratories in collusion with state and public organisations like IFREMER, promoters of the tetraploid and triploid oyster.
The traditionalists also believe, quite rightly, that traceability of all oysters should be introduced so that consumers can choose between natural and hatchery-reared oysters (and consumers should start demanding this as well!). They also want to have the right to label their product as being the natural oyster, and in this sense, the only oyster considered to be bio, that is ecologically reared. One crazy anomaly is that European Union legislation insists that any organic produce, labelled as such, must be traced back to its source, in the case of animals to its genitors, the result being that the only bio (organic) oyster in France is hatchery-reared (sic), and that the natural oysters, born in the sea, are barred from this brand, since it is quite impossible to ascertain their derivation!!
One of these is Yvonnick Jégat, whose great grandfather started the oyster établissement back in 1925. Along the tranquil point of Arrradon, on the north coast of the gulf, a site of exceptional beauty, he conducts his oyster and shellfish business, working in harmony with nature, the sun, the currents, the fresh water flowing down into gulf. As member of this association of ostréiculteurs traditionnels, which prides itself on the traditional savoir-faire of the profession, he wants to produce an oyster that is as natural as can possibly be grown.
He has three parcs in different areas of the gulf, totalling 40 hectares (98 acres). A large one on the northwestern slope of the island of Arz in the centre of the gulf, one in front of the point of Arradon and the third just east of the village of Locmariaquer. After buying his seed from the bay of Quiberon, he cultivates the spat in bags on trestles for two years to make them strong enough to resist predators like the starfish, crab and sea bream and then places them on the sea floor, which is sandy rather than muddy, like most of the gulf’s floor. They are dredged regularly and he eventually farms them with a drag. It takes between three or four years for them to reach a good, marketable size. The first two sites are preferred as they are fed by the swirling, strong currents from the swelling and draining of the gulf by the Atlantic tides.
He has six employees for whom he feels a genuine pride and responsibility. They are busy sorting out the latest batch of oysters Yvonnick has brought in on the afternoon tide. They will be shipped on to the market later, some with the evening train from Vannes, a good 20 minutes away by car, to Paris. He also wants to be able to pass onto to his children a thriving business, built on values that he sees as important not just for himself but also for the environment and man’s future.
He feels sure that many of the recent problems blighting the oysters in the French Atlantic waters have been caused by the overuse of triploids, whose seed is produced by hatcheries. Loss of genetic diversity is one reason for the vulnerability of young oysters; others the use of antibiotics in hatcheries and the manipulation of conditions to speed up initial growth so that the seed is not healthy enough for the rigours of the marine environment. Like many ostréiculteurs he is angry with IFREMER, the French state agency responsible for supervising the industry, as he thinks they are neither being sufficiently objective nor indeed truthful about the causes of these dire problems. Moreover, they do next to nothing to support those oyster farmers like him, who want to preserve the traditional methods of cultivation. Yvonnick is convinced that the natural oyster, that is one grown on the sea floor, is far more hardy and resistant than those reared by hatcheries, and especially the triploid strains. The latter have proved to be too unstably sterile, and their effect on natural banks of oysters could be devastating. He is still awaiting a reply from IFREMER to a letter he sent them during the summer about his own observations of the oyster mortalities that go against IFREMER’s explanation of the causes. According to him, they prefer to blame adverse weather conditions, such as too much rain in the spring, the heatwave in July or global warming. Also he feels some of his colleagues are too afraid to speak out, even in private, for commercial and marketing reasons, and so prefer to play ball with the authorities.
Anyway, what about his oysters, which have won many prestigious prizes at national agricultural fairs and found their way onto the dinner tables in the Elysée, the presidential palace, and the Ritz hotel, in Paris? But he knows he has so many loyal clients, and with that said, their taste was absolutely delightful. The no 3s had a thick, heavy, dark brown shell, covered lightly in red-brown, bushy seaweed, holding a strong adductor muscle so that they were extraordinarily difficult to open. Inside, the mantle revealed a deep black, lace-like colour, more so against the uniform radiance of the pearl-white surface and jammed pack with meat that was muted beige, plump and firm (no signs at all of any milkiness, this being the middle of September). Almost crunchy, its taste was the immediate flush of sea salt and freshness, which gave way to a slight flowery or grassy sweetness and the finish had a definite flavour of oil and wood. So just how would they taste in January? I’d love to find that out!
1 Le Parisien, 26.06.2013