In the waters of the Arcachon Bay, wild oysters have always been found, local residents collected them for their own consumption and for sale, but with the arrival of Napoleon III in 1859, the oyster industry was born. And in the second half of the 20th century, the Arcachon Gulf became the largest nursery in Western Europe, supplying small molluscs to all of France and even Europe. Oyster production has now declined due to climate change, high mortality rates of oyster fry and the hard work that this delicacy requires.
To meet with one of the oyster farmers, we went to the oyster capital of the Arcachon Gulf – the city of Gujan-Mestras, where seven oyster ports are located. Meet Fabrice Vigier – a hereditary farmer since 1846, whose grandfather infected him with his love for the oyster business. Together with his wife Géraldine, they not only grow oysters, but also offer to try this delicacy directly on their own farm Le Routioutiou (which in the local dialect means “baby of the youngest,” we are talking about Fabrice, who was the youngest grandson in the family of Fabrice’s grandfather), which is located in the port of Larros (fr. Larros). By the way, it is easy to recognize her by a bright red sign with the image of the city’s symbol – a ladybug, which at one time saved local vineyards from phylloxera (which, we note, have long been gone).
– Fabrice, tell the story of your oyster farm, how you came to this profession.
– Larros is the port of my childhood, where I spent all my school holidays with my grandparents, who were oyster farmers, as well as weekends and holidays. We can say that the passion for oysters was inherited by me and with it the love for the sea and nature! This hobby came to me much earlier than the hobby for girls, but over time I made up for a lost time (laughs)! As a teenager, my friends went for a walk, and I went out to the sea to help my grandfather. At that moment I still did not know that I would devote my whole life to oysters … I learned to be a biological laboratory assistant, but I quickly realized that working in a closed room with air conditioning and electric lighting, studying bacteria under a microscope all day, is not for me! So at 23, together with my first wife, I opened a company selling fresh fish, which we bought directly from fishermen and delivered to clients at home. This work brought me a little closer to the sea but has not yet immersed me in it (smiles). When, seven years later, my grandfather retired at the age of 76, I was afraid that the business started by my ancestors back in 1846 would disappear. And oyster fishing became the meaning of my life! It was at this moment that I met Geraldine, who worked as a nurse in a hospital where I was admitted with an abdominal hernia. She decided to quit her studies, her native Brittany and her childhood port of Saint-Malo, and work with me. It was 15 years ago.
– Was it at this moment that you opened your farm for tastings?
– Yes, since Geraldine received her first education in restaurant business, we equipped our farm in such a way as to be able to receive customers for tasting freshly caught oysters. And my brother Ludovic, who had just graduated from high school then, began to help me deal with oysters. Things went uphill quickly and we were able to buy a new longboat with an integrated crane to replace my grandfather’s old ship, forty-three years old. At that moment, no more than 10 farmers out of 450 had such a longboat!
– What has changed since the time of your grandfather in the oyster industry?
– In the days of my grandfather, oysters were grown right on the bottom, where they poured their fry. You can imagine how difficult it was to dig up the sand-covered oysters after the ebb and flow! Now we place the oysters in special nets, which we put in one layer on the iron supports installed on the bottom. This way we protect oysters from silt and predators, crabs, starfish and snails and make our job easier. My grandfather sold oysters in the market, and in the summer season, he offered them for tasting, putting several plastic tables in front of the farm. I decided to open a kind of traditional cafe for year-round tasting and selling oysters, a place for friendly meetings and easy communication. For me, this is a kind of mission: to share with people my love for oyster fishing and knowledge about this noble mollusc!
– Fabrice, what is your annual oyster production?
– Now I have at my disposal three oyster sites on the Banc d’Arguin sandbank, one on the Grand Banc sandbank, one near the Cap Ferret peninsula and two next to Bird Island (fr. Île aux Oiseaux). We are talking about the different zones of the Arcachon Gulf, which differ in their terroir, like the vineyards of the Bordeaux region. In each zone, the oyster will be at a certain stage of its development and acquire different flavors. In some area, it is better to breed fry, in another – to leave the oyster to be refined, so that it acquires its final taste before it comes to your table. In total, I have in operation two hectares of the bay, from which I receive an average of 20 tons of oysters per year, which I sell here, on the farm. No external trade, let alone export! In August, at the height of the summer season, we sometimes host up to 500 people a day, who come to taste or buy a couple of dozen fresh oysters.
– How much time and effort does it take to grow one oyster?
– I confess, a lot, because the oyster requires a lot of care. Her life begins in July-August, when fry (the so-called oyster spa “) cling to special collectors that we installed in the bay. A few months later, from January to March, we separate the young oysters from the collectors and place them in nets. Until 18 months, these oysters will be in one area, then I move them to another area for another year, and, finally, they will spend the last few months in the third area. In total, this process takes three years. This is the minimum time it takes for the oyster to reach the richness of flavor and shell firmness. During this period, the oyster returns from the sea to land from 7 to 10 times for sorting, sifting, calibration …
– The number of oyster farms has decreased recently. How do you think why? Is it really unprofitable to engage in this trade?
– Like any farming business, oyster fishing requires sacrifice. So, for example, I personally work 100 hours a week, while a civil servant only 35! Several times a week I go out to sea to my oyster plots, including on weekends and holidays, which is 20-25 times a month. Yes, it is profitable to do this, but on condition that you do not regret neither time nor energy! After all, you have to go to sea in any weather and at any time of the day, because you have to set sail from the coast with the beginning of low tide and return only six hours later with high tide. My working day can start at 6 in the morning and end at 11 in the evening, because sometimes you go out to sea twice a day. I confess that it is not easy to maintain such a rhythm, hence the decline in interest in this profession. When I started, there were 450 of us, now there are a little more than 300 … I am lucky that my wife works with me, otherwise we would not have a family life, because with such work we simply would not see each other!
– Do you have days off and vacations?
– Yes, when there is less work with oysters, we go on vacation, and this happens in August, immediately after the installation of the collectors, and at the end of the Christmas holidays. After all, it is at Christmas in France that the most oysters are eaten, which means that these are the hottest days for us!
– By the way, what is the best period for consuming oysters? Is it true that they can be eaten only in those months, in the name of which there is the letter “r”?
– Yes and no! Yes, indeed, the oyster tastes best from October to April, when it has a particularly juicy and rich taste! But this does not mean that oysters cannot be consumed in a different period. I was taught to eat them all year round and accept the taste changes that occur in the oyster throughout the year, which is associated not only with its natural cycle, but also with external factors: changeable salinity and water temperature, changes in ocean flora, etc. , last year the oyster reached its maturity early, back in September, which was associated with a decrease in water temperature. Oysters can be compared to wine: there is a good year, a very good and exceptional year! In the days of my grandfather, it was forbidden to sell oysters in the summer, because during this period there was the greatest chance of contamination with bacteria. Now, before selling oysters, they must be placed in compartments with running clean filtered water, which ensures that they do not have any deviations.
– So how many oysters do you eat a day?
– Most of all I love April and May oysters, when I can eat an uncountable number of them! But since oysters are in my blood (smiles), I don’t even notice how many of them I eat … I eat oysters when I’m in the sea, I eat them when I open them, when I drink a glass of wine with friends … To be honest, I never counted!
– Are oysters good for health?
– Oysters are a very healthy product: they are rich in oligoelements, minerals, salts and proteins, they are very low in fat and about 90% water. Therefore, I recommend excessive consumption of oysters and seafood in general (laughs)!
–Fabrice, what are your plans for the future?
– I would like as many people as possible to know about my profession and the spirit of Le Routioutiou! My wife and I have already taken our oysters to the International Agricultural Salon in Paris, this year we offered them for tasting at the stand of the Gascon wine producer Château du Tarriquet during the VINEXPO international exhibition in Bordeaux. Next year I would like to present my oysters at a Christmas market in some other city in France. These activities take a lot of time and energy, but they are great fun as they provide an opportunity to share your knowledge and your passion with others!
– Fabrice, would you like your sons to continue your business?
– Of course, I would like to transfer the farm to my children, but I will not force them. I would like them to awaken a love for oysters, as I did when I helped my grandfather. My eldest son Mathieu, who is 13 years old, and 10-year-old Jules, one might say, plunged into my world from the very birth. There are many positive aspects in my work, but there are also negative ones. I think when the children grow up, they themselves will understand whether they want to work indoors or in constant contact with nature. I am part of the landscape and history of the Arcachon Gulf with its oyster cages, flat-bottomed longboats and small wooden oyster houses! And this is priceless!