This is definitely going to be an I-have-tasted-that experience.
In my fantasy it was at least, a gentle salty mouthwatering one, when I looked up where to find and eat the best oysters on the European coast.
Remarkably, the one question that keeps popping up is: when not to eat oysters.
We will look into that later.
I am not claiming to have tasted all oyster varieties in Europe, that would drive anybody insane, in a nice way perhaps as the oyster is considered an aphrodisiac.
Casanova seems to have consumed 40 a day.
But like most of us in Europe, we will at least have tasted more than one variety as so many distinguished delicious varieties are found all over Europe.
That is of course if you were as lucky as to be delighted to go for more of the refined light salty taste experience gulping down your throat after you faced the content of the exceptional half shell for the very first time. It has been said so often:
You either love them or hate them.
Oysters have been around in Europe for a very long time, from the coast of Norway to the Mediterranean. Blue-grey fossils of oysters from the Holocene are still found along the coastlines after heavy storms and oyster cultivation has a long history too.
All varieties within each species come with its own, very refined surprising touch in flavour, based on the distinctive seawater habitat conditions they were grown.
This is sometimes called their merroir, let us say compared to what terroir (the soil, region and habitat) is to wine.
There are 5 species of oysters to start off with, and all of them not only look different but also have their own characteristics in taste.
Pacific Oyster – alternate name Japanese Oyster, originally from the Asian Pacific, now the most cultivated oyster in the US and France, where it is named creuse.
This oyster species is found all off the coast of in Norway (since 20 years or so) and is farmed in Denmark, Holland (in Zeeland and in the Waddenzee), Belgium (in Oostende), England, France and Spain.
The Portuguese Oyster, found on the Iberian Peninsula, is classified today as a variety of the Pacific oyster, and not as a species in itself.
Kumamoto Oyster – imported to the US from Japan since 1947, very popular in the US, but funnily enough not in Japan. As the oyster grows very slow, it is not much farmed, it sometimes bears the name of the farming region in addition
Atlantic Oyster – one of the two indigenous oysters to the US, this one found along the Northern US Atlantic coast, the other one is the
Olympic Oyster – indigenous to the Pacific West Coast, the smallest species, and related to the
European Oyster – a flat oyster, cultivated all over Europe, of which possibly the most famous variety is farmed in France, named the Belon.
Australia & New Zealand species
There is a number of species native to these 2 countries :
Native Oyster (often named Angassi) that is related to the European flat one
Sydney Rock Oyster, farmed in New South Wales, Queensland, and in lesser quantities in Western Australia and the
Triploid – a sexless, sterile oyster, that doesn’t spawn and therefore very popular with farmers
The Pacific Oyster or Creuse and the Flat Oyster
Let’s go after the 2 main European oysters, the Creuse and the Flat oyster.
The Creuse is the most farmed oyster in France, from the coast of Normandy till the south of Bretagne and in the Vendée, the Marennes, Arcachon and the on Mediterranean coast.
Creuses are also largely cultivated in Zeeland (in the South of Holland, bordering Belgium).
It is the far most cultivated European oyster, as its cultivation time spans between 2 and 3 years to get ready for consumption.
The Marennes area, off the coast of la Rochelle, is the largest oyster farming region in all of Europe and the stunning area is a very popular holiday destination.
One of the oyster brands farmed here is the world famous Gillardeau oyster, named after Henri Gillardeau, who started his business in 1898.
The Gillardeau is considered one of the best oysters in the world, classified as ´Special de Claires´ (so even more refined than the ´Fine de Claires’).
They are real travellers as they start their lives in the icy waters off Utah Beach in Normandy or County Cork in Ireland and finish their upbringing in the oyster beds of the Marennes d’ Oléron, ending up on top of the oyster world ranking list.
Today Gillardeau laser-engraves the shells against another temptation related to the oyster, the counterfeit of their expensive produce, a devaluation in reputation according to some experts.
Being at the top in this refined, delicate business, the company states it finds happiness in the pleasure it gives to others. Impressive also, when you think that they installed an oyster vending machine in the heart of Paris a couple of years ago.
The Gillardeau website directs you to their network worldwide.
The Flat Oyster
The Flat or native oyster, locally known as the Zeeuwse platte (in Holland), and le Platte or Belon (in France) takes much longer to grow: around 5 to 6 years before they are ready for consumption.
They are much less farmed and therefore sometimes hard to find.
Quite often today, the flat oysters on your plate are cultivated in Ireland, the U.K. and Denmark.
Arguably most famous is the Belon from France, cultivated in the Belon river in Bretagne.
They are described by connoisseurs as the boldest in flavor with a mineral intensity, but very delicate in taste with a long and strong aftertaste.
France and England use different charts for oyster sizes than for instance Holland
Flat oysters – France & England:
- nr 4 = 40 gr
- nr 3 = 50 gr
- nr 2 = 60 gr
- nr 1 = 75 gr
- nr 0 = 90 gr
- nr 00 = 100 gr
- nr 000 = 110 gr
- nr 0000 = 120 gr
- nr 00000 = 150 gr
In Holland :
- 3/0 = 60 gr
- 4/0 = 75 gr
- 5/0 = 105 gr
- 6/0 = 120 gr
So … when not to eat oysters
The French say that French oysters are best eaten from September till March, during which months the oysters are at its creamiest savour. The main reason being that the oysters are spawning in the summer months, therefore their taste becomes more watery and weaker. Also with the water in winter being much colder, they taste much better.
But what if you craving them outside this period?
The above-mentioned Gillardeau says on its website their oysters can be enjoyed all year around, as the flesh is never milky in structure.
Advice from experts tell the same, but leave it up to yourself, your fishmonger and restaurant to convince you to stay away from eating them in summer or just give in to temptation.
The Bad Oyster exists for real !
It would be fantastic to know upfront that you are swallowing one of the very rare bad oysters before it hits your health system, but there is nothing you can do about it. The little bacteria named vibrio vulnificus is the cause of the poisoned delicacy, growing along and inside the oyster on the coast and in estuaries.
Staying away from the oyster delicacy would be wise based on information that the oysters could be polluted other than by natural bacteria, such as the suspicion of the presence of heavy metals in the cultivation area.
This happened to the Ebro oyster, farmed at the delta of the river Ebro in Catalunya, Spain some time ago.
Studies showed however, there was no reason for fear of contamination.
Great news for the area, for the oyster and the lovers of this velvety sweet and salty oyster variety.
80 % of the Ebro oysters are exported to France, where they are not always recognized as not being from French waters and even sometimes exported back to Catalunya.
The Delta del’ Ebro is worth the visit for more than its delicacies, as it is one of the most stunning areas in the Barcelona region.
In my view eating oysters is a delight comparable to nothing.
And can be in summer too as we conduct strict controls today by national fish institutes on oyster quality and the environmental impact oyster farming has on the ecosystem.
You can find more info from the Marine Conservation Society on Sustainable Seafood here in the GoodFishGuide.
The bad oyster does not differ much from other seafood in being unlucky with a serving.
The question if oysters do have less taste in summer months is something you can really only decide by trying.
You should of course never buy oysters if you don’t trust the supplier.
That counts for restaurants as well as the fishmongers. Fish markets at the coast may be safer in general.
And when I am unable to buy right from the oyster farms or coastal fish mongers, I like to keep things on the safe side and only go for the established suppliers.
Looking into a couple of reviews beforehand is so easy and could save you a lot of trouble in the end, as your goal was to go out for a sensational tasting experience at first and not for disaster.
Like I just did, you will love to have a look at these tantalizing products.
Catch of the day – But how on earth open them ?
It feels like really achieving something when you try shucking the stunningly gorgeous two half shells, struggling your patience away.
Don’t worry: it is a skill!
Once you have tried it, you can certainly be a tad proud here, I can assure you that the majority of the oyster lovers never made it as far as that.
And that goes especially for the visitors of top locations worldwide. Don’t get your hands dirty.
Try it one time at least, to get the feel and the respect for the food, the professionals and for yourself.
In the end, it is not as hard as killing a fish or a chicken.
Important questions are: what is the better oyster knife, how to avoid injuries and do we need all the professional equipment promoted online?
My personal experience says that any strong oyster knife will do the trick, but covering the hand holding the oyster holding is essential!
I tend to use a thick cloth, but the iron protecting glove does look impressively medieval and professional if you do throw a party for 40 pax or so.
That is after practising a few times the week before.
Throw a look at the reviews not only at Amazon but also here.
BUT your solution might be this – the manual shucker.
And most important have fun!
Reading more about oysters can be real fun too
There is so much (un)real information on oysters, its cultivation and cuisine available, but make sure not to dive into the internet only.
Books were and remain a delight when it comes to reading about food.
It simply seems closer and more touchable than on a dancing screen.
Books on oyster are numerous, but many of the good ones are often out of print, or temporarily unavailable. I find this historical Oyster book a fascinating story, but browse around and enjoy.
There is so much more to learn about this very old, fascinating creature, whatever way we like to classify or label them as humans.
Oyster Tours & Tastings
Here is a list of possible Oyster Tours & Tastings I came across on my European trips, it may help you choose the next (short) holiday destination.
Consider spending a couple of days on the glamorous islands in the Waddenzee like Sylt or Föhr, though you want to avoid the crowds of July and August months.
Watch this video
On the coast of Bretagne in France, the one place the oyster lover will visit is Cancale, just east of Saint-Malo and known as the oyster capital of Bretagne.
See the Tourist Office Cancale for Oyster Tours (visites des parcs à huitres de Cancale) in this stunning coastal region.
The French town of Bouzigues, in the Languedoc, south of Montpellier (in the south of France) is famous for its oyster production. Creuses, as well as flat oysters, are farmed here and the town claims to have the best and most sought after oysters In Europe.
Oyster farming in this l’Etang de Thau region is said to go back as far as the Greeks.
This company offers an Oyster Tasting Tour but search for other options as well once you get there.
The itinerary west of Marseille and the Camargue Regional Park and then south from Montpellier which takes you past Bouzigues could probably be one of the most beautiful coastal routes you have seen!
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