Riec sur Bélon, France — I think of it as the day I got neither lunch nor dinner, but ate very well indeed.
After an hour-long, early morning jog through a pine-lined stretch of road just steps from the Bélon river near the southern coast of Brittany, we headed off in search of sunshine, oyster beds, and scenic views.
Lunch was clearly on our minds.
We parked at the edge of the slender river, tide very low, and headed towards the famed Chez Jacky, the quintessential waterside fish restaurant known for its lively ambience, sparkling fresh Bélon oysters, and giant platters of fish and shellfish that might include baby shrimp, plump mussels, tiny periwinkles, and colorful spider crabs. Alas, it was Monday and my favored fish spot was locked tight.
But right next door there was a buzz of activity going on at the Huîtrières du Château de Bélon, an operation that’s existed since 1864, when August de Solminihac became one of the pioneers in oyster reproduction, or oestréiculture, in Brittany. Here, a handful of young men were busy sorting oysters, packing oysters large and small in round balsawood baskets for shipping all over France, while others opened oysters for the handful of vacationers already on hand to sample the famed, nutty-flavored flat bivalves.
Historically, Bélon oysters have been prized for their unique, mineral-rich perfume and flavor, and the hint of hazelnut. When they are at their best, they have greater nuance than the more familiar crinkle-shelled creuses, since the plate oyster is aged in the Bélon river, a delicate mixture of sea water and freshwater.
Even though it was only 11 am, the aromas and ambience got the best of us, and soon we were watching as a lean, tall young Frenchman deftly opened our order of a dozen pristine and fresh Bélons, six tiny # 4s and six slightly larger #2s.
The setting had a certain, gentle charm: Though the tide was low, the skies were a brilliant blue, and there was just enough activity of fishing boats rolling in and out to make one feel part of the action. We settled down aside a small white plastic table and waited for our order, inhaling the myriad owners of seaweed, water and sea breezes.
My companion reminded me, with a touch of assurance in his voice, “This doesn’t count as lunch, you know.” I nodded, knowing that it surely did not.
The oysters arrived, as did real porcelain plates, slices of fresh and earthy rye bread, and real glasses, ready for sampling a few sips of Daniel Gratas’s fine Muscadet Sevres et Maine Sur Lie 2004. There are few more perfectly matched food and wine combinations as the chalky, flinty, mineral-rich white Muscadet and the equally flinty, fresh and pure oysters. A more pleasant feast could not have been created in a regal, three-star restaurant. Somehow, at that moment, culinary perfection was reached, with a tiny squeeze of fresh lemon, a sheer spread of salty butter, the oysters one by one, the sips of pure, fresh Muscadet. The tiny Bélon oysters reminded me of an Olympic gymnast. How do those tiny bodies explode with such power and energy? I wondered how these miniature bivalves could manage to capture so much intensity, long-lasting flavor that didn’t just fill your palate but your entire head. The sea gulls cried, the birds chirped, we watched hikers enter the fern and oak-filled forest nearby. All was right with nature and the world.
About six hours later, following an afternoon of touring, various brocantes, and walks along the water, our car was beckoned off the road on the western edge of central Brittany as we saw a tidy, colorful terrace lined with green-stained picnic tables with a breathtaking view of deep blue waters of the Aulne river, which, like the Bélon river, leads right into the Atlantic.
The large sign advertising Les Viviers de Terénéz tempted us with the thought of pristine, fresh oysters, crabs, as well as fresh and smoked trout. Because of the early hour, the place was deserted, save for the staff that scurried around tending to the spotless fish tanks holding monster lobster, giant crabs, all manner of mussels and plenty of plump creuses oysters. We seated ourselves at a bare picnic table overlooking a slender beach, festively carpeted with newly discarded shells representing previous diners feasts.
After we gave our order --- half a dozen small oysters, half a dozen medium sized oysters, a whole freshly steamed torteau or crab, a few slices of Aulne river grown rainbow trout, and some welcome Muscadet, my companion looked up and announced with clear determination, ” This doesn’t count as dinner, correct?” I agreed, and soon we had tiny oyster forks in hand, satisfyingly slurping up the freshest of oysters, plump, with crystal clear and briny liquid and the sort of flavors one can only get at the source.
The crab – which had come in from a fisherman in Roscoff just hours before – was lifted from the viviers, or fish tanks, and instantly put into the stainless steaming oven for a quick, efficient cooking. With tons of sweet white meat, the crab was pure, pure pleasure. We finished off with slices of their rich rainbow trout (owners Pascal Brisset and Catherine Fitamant grow more than six tons of trout each year) that had been slow-smoked for a full seven hours over beech wood, or hêtre, then cured in salt for another two hours. Richly flavored and lightly smoked, the trout was right at home with Domaine La Paonnerie’s organically grown Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire 2002 with light, floral overtones of mint and honeysuckle.
Not so bad, for a day without lunch or dinner.
Huîtrières du Château de Belon
Port de Belon
29340 Riec su Belon
Telephone: 02 98 06 41 43
About 15 euros for two, a dozen oysters, bread, butter, lemons and half a bottle of wine.
Les Viviers de Térénez
Route de Térénez
Telephone: 02 98 81 90 86
About 60 euros for two, for a tasting of oysters, crab, smoked trout and wine.