Already known to the ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman civilizations, in France the first systems for capturing and farming naissain (young oysters) were developed in the 19th century, in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, Brittany. Today, the young oyster spawn are caught in the Arcachon Basin, in the Gironde department, where the conditions are particularly favorable to their growth, then implanted in Brittany.
Oysters are the architects of the reefs, bays and marine ecosystems that host and protect them during the various phases of their development. Useful indicators of environmental conditions along the coast, these bivalve mollusks carry out a valuable water-filtering function. In fact, they develop a specific flavor depending on the salt level, water temperature, seabed composition, tidal range and current strength. Their natural life cycle also affects their seasonal availability. They should not be eaten in the summer, their reproductive season, because hormonal changes slow their growth, making them small and milky. Plus, they should be allowed to grow for three years, until they reach their optimal stage of development.
In Brittany, numerous oyster farmers have stopped catching the oysters naturally, and instead use spawn selected in incubators and raised in nurseries. Due to the inexhaustible supply of incubator-produced spawn, many of the farmers working in the sea have intensified production, to increase their output and reduce the amount of work.
As if this was not enough, researchers have also genetically altered oysters, adding a chromosome to turn natural oysters (diploids) into sterile triploids. These modified triploid oysters spend all of their energy on feeding and fattening themselves, so they can be sold year-round, and from the age of 18 months rather than after three years. Indeed, triploids are sometimes called “four-season oysters.”
To promote the production of natural oysters, to publicize about the danger of a potential future extinction of natural diploid oysters due to intensive triploid production and to develop more direct relationships with consumers and raise their awareness about this issue, Slow Food has created a Presidium. The project has been set up with oyster farmers who have chosen to continue with tradition, respecting the natural life cycle of the mollusks. The Presidium producers guarantee sea-born oysters and environmentally friendly farming techniques, thanks to a production protocol signed by all the producers. Among other conditions, the protocol states that no more than 4,000 oysters can be raised per hectare and that all the spawn must be caught at sea.
Jean Noël Yvon has been farming oysters for decades and is the coordinator of the Slow Food Natural Breton Oysters Presidium. The Presidium currently has several producers, all joined in the “Groupement des producteurs d'huîtres bretonnes nées en mer - Réseau Cohérence.”
«È all'orecchio che io sento se le ostriche stanno crescendo bene. Bisogna scuotere la sacca e, a seconda del rumore che fa, si capisce se ci sono delle mortalità, poiché le conchiglie producono un suono cavernoso; oppure se stano crescendo, perché il guscio è più fragile, e produce piccoli scricchiolii molto particolari. Ascoltando si capisce tutto! Alla vista, un'ostrica in crescita è magnifica, la conchiglia può aumentare di 1-2 centimetri di larghezza, è fine come una cartina di sigaretta, trasparente, madreperlacea e colorata di violetto e rosso sulla parte della conchiglia più dura, dovuta allo sviluppo di organismi vegetali o spugne sulla loro superficie. Un'ostrica in buona salute esibisce una tavolozza di colori magnifica ».
Breton natural oysters are excellent eaten plain, accompanied by no more than a glass of good Chablis, a minerally white wine from Burgundy.
Foto — Archivio Slow Food