The stars of Charente-Maritime
Oysters are an integrated part of the local heritage, you have to try them! Oléron, Ré, the La Rochelle area... discover an area that is spread over 3000 hectares of sea enclosures and 2000 hectares of oyster beds in Charente-Maritime. Here, many oyster farmer families’ lives revolve around the tides and with their unrivalled expertise they produce thousands of tonnes of oysters every year.
The star oyster: grown on an oyster bed, it really is exceptional... This oyster is grown on an oyster bed (in soft water farming enclosures) for four to eight months. The secret to its flavours is firstly due to its very low density per square metre. Rarer than other traditional oysters, the oysters grown on an oyster bed can gorge on plankton and are consequently much fleshier but not cloudy, contrary to what you might think by looking at them. With a shiny, ivory colour it offers a rare firmness in your mouth. But the other secret to successfully farming them is by putting prawns in the pools. Putting them together creates a natural symbiosis where the prawns clean up by eating all the dead micro-organisms. This means the oysters grown on oyster beds are only bred in the best pools where they acquire a beautiful lingering taste that is hard to come by. A real treat for oyster fans.
Along with oysters, the other star shellfish of the region is undoubtedly the Bouchot mussel. These oysters are grown on wooden stakes. It is in Baie de l’Aiguillon, in the north of La Rochelle, that the Bouchot mussel thrives. Where the salty water from the Atlantic meets the soft water from the Marais Poitevin, there is a spectacular line of wooden stakes (the “bouchots”) for as far as the eye can see. The mussels latch on to these “bouchots” until they reach maturity when their delicate, yellow, flavoursome flesh means they are ready to be eaten.
Bouchot mussels are also called Charron mussels in France, which is the name of an area in the north of France where the idea to farm mussels on wooden stakes was first founded. According to legend, a terrible storm in 1235 washed up an Irish sailor, Patrick Wilson, and his boat on the Icelandic coast. There was nothing around him in this era, nothing apart from the birds which he tried to catch for food by stretching a net out between wooden posts that were embedded in the mudflat. Under the water, the stakes were covered in mussels at high tide. And so the Bouchot mussel was born! Which is one of the best mussels in Europe.
When to eat oysters and mussels
It’s all about the season
The best months to try oysters are the months with an “R” in it, so from September to April. But you can find them all year round if you like the flesh cloudy. However, between June and August is the best time to discover the mussels’ flavours directly from La Rochelle’s Port de Pêche in Chef de Baie or in the lovely little ports in the area, all whilst sitting comfortably on the terrace in the heart of La Rochelle.
Choosing your oysters...
A history of calibre and maturing
The calibre defines the size of the oysters. They are numbered from 1 to 5. The smaller the number, the more important the size of the oyster is! Then it’s their maturing method that will let you know you have the right oyster. With their fine sea flavour really coming through and their distinctive fleshiness that has the perfect sweet and salty balance giving them their clear form and that distinct local flavour!
Taste the sea
We feast on fish and shellfish here and trying the seafood is a must for anyone who sets foot in the city. Each fish has its season and so you don’t lose track, here is a little overview of the species to discover in your dishes:
Sea bass and meagre (but especially meagre) are the two star features of the local heritage. Line-caught, or in other words wild and caught with a fish hook, they have an incredibly delicate meat. Large numbers of sole and wedge sole, that are caught in winter and summer respectively off the Gironde estuary, can be found on the sandy sea floor. The sardine is fished for off the shore of Royan from May to July, but then there is the “vendanges harvest” in Autumn which makes for a delightful treat for fans of raw fish as the meat is fattier.
Squid, also called calamari, prolongs the fishing season during winter, as squid fishing is at its peak in December, January and February. It is best served with a simple parsley butter or slow-cooked in a ragu style.
Cockles and clams make the shellfish pickers happy, who walk along the shoreline in summer at low tide. Bay scallops, which can also be found by shell picking, are fished for from October to December. Though a little smaller, they are similar in taste to their sister shellfish, the scallop. The Pertuis Charentais between La Rochelle and Oléron is fished between October and December. Furthermore, the sand shrimp and prawns that are fished for off the coast of La Côtinière are, along with the lobsters, the best tasting crustaceans!
And then there is the lobster, which everyone wants to snap up. Its 100% rustic crate fishing is traditional in Charente-Maritime. It is fished at night from the end of May to the start of September. And even if it is nowhere near as big as the Canadian lobsters, the flavour of the French lobster’s meat is beautifully delicate.
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