Tides dictate everything in the bay of Aracachon. My trip was timed to coincide with the few days in the month of August when the tides would be high enough (and low enough!) to access the oyster beds where the oysters are grown on the ground. Our outings on the boat each day were timed to leave the port with just enough time to cross the bay, reach the oyster bed, drop anchor, have lunch, and wait for the tide to recede. If you wait too long at the port, the boat is grounded and the shallow channel accessing the port is empty. You've missed an entire day of work. I had no idea what to expect and was completely surprised as we calmly had lunch waiting for the tide to recede leaving the boat high and dry! No way to leave until the tide comes back in again.
Frédéric Dubourg (pictured above with his father Francis) is a 5th generation oyster farmer in the Bay of Arcachon. He is the last to cultivate oysters in the traditional way - directly on the ground - rather than in sacks on iron platforms. This gives the oysters a more natural flavor or "goût du terroir" much like the distinctions acquired by wines whose subtle differences in flavors depend on where they are grown. Another comparison could be made between free range chickens vs. industrial chickens. The oysters are not squashed together in bags and suspended on platforms for the comfort of workers, they must be laboriously spread, turned, sheltered and gathered by hand. Free range oysters are also more at risk for predators including certain kinds of fish, crabs and burrowing snails. But the payoff in this labor of love is a better tasting natural product.
On the boat, leaving the port:
Oysters for lunch while waiting for the tide to go out:
White wine to go with the oysters:
Red wine to go with the pâté, roast chicken, and then the cheese course. Hey this is France!
Tide's out. Time to go to work.
That's François, Frédéric's brother-in-law in the yellow jacket, and Christian, a family friend visiting from Paris in the middle.
As the tide comes back in, it's time to gather up the tools.
Frédéric is spreading out some oysters below. He has 5 different "fields" and just like the farmer who turns his flock into different areas, he rotates the oysters through the different areas, always keeping track of temperatures, predators, and the natural elements in the water. The neighboring oyster farmer is using sacks on platforms. Oysters grown in sacks are out of the water for longer periods of time and don't grow as fast or taste as good.
It's a labor intensive business and subject to all of the laws of nature - storms, predators, and climate change. But the Dubourg family is passionate about the their traditional way of growing oysters and bringing them directly to the public in the tiny Cabane a Huîtres in Paris.