Cap Ferret, France --- As I passed a display of espadrilles in the local supermarket, reading the sign that said Mettez Vous en Vacances! I laughed out loud. “Put Yourself on Vacation,” of course! Only the French would come with an idea like that.
Truly, there is nothing better than watching the French on vacation. They get into it 100%, with the proper costume for each region and for each sport. It seems that people who may be sour and serious the rest of year, turn into, well, children during those long and lazy days of summer vacation.
Come Taste Oysters in Le Canon
A recent tour of the Bassin d’Arcachon along the Atlantic Coast southwest of Bordeaux netted plenty of good time observing the French on vacation, as well as time to savor plenty of the region’s bounty. We began each day in the lively Arcachon market where indoor and outdoor stalls provided plenty of inspiration for an ideal breakfast: The cannelé – or crenulated little rum-filled caramelized cakes from Bordeaux – at the stand of the house of Baillardran beckoned, with not one type of cake, but three perfectly formed, glistening sweets. We sampled them all, of course, the lightly cooked Tendre, the Croustillant, cooked a little bit longer and offering a soft interior and crunchy exterior, and finally the Croquant, a truly dark mahogany color, so crunchy the exterior stuck to our teeth. We took a table right at the edge of the outdoor market, sipped double express and made ourselves part of the French vacation celebration.
Next step, La Route des Saveurs de l’Huitre, a driving tour that can include visits to some 21 port villages, each with its own set of oyster farmers, or ostréicultuers. One can stop for a snack or a whole meal, or just watch the farmers at work, tending the oyster beds. They call themselves paysans de la mer, or farmers of the sea, and that is what they are. Oysters have been harvested here since Roman times, but by 1859 the wild oyster crops was nearly exhausted, and oyster farming began for real.
A House with No Name, in Village de l'Herbe
A tour of the port towns --- with simple, charming names, such as Village de l’Herbe, Canon or Cap Ferret, and hard to pronounce ones such as Claouey and Gujan-Mestras – can easily fill a day or more. Many, such as Village de l’Herbe, Canon and Claouey are big enough for strolling through the rows of tiny, colorful one-room cabanes, or cabins that hug the waters. Most are dolled up with window boxes, bright red or blue trim, and each, of course, has a romantic name, such as Eugenie or Bon Abri. I laughed out loud again I came upon a pristine, newly restored cabane trimmed in red and white brick. Either the owner has a great sense of humor or a total lack of imagination for the house, quite simply, was named with a large question mark!
Each oyster farmer’s shack offers the same “menu,” for eating there or for takeout and prices are uniform and regulated. A dozen oysters will cost from 6 to 11 €, depending upon the size and the season. Our first stop was at the farthest point along the Bassin, the village of Cap Ferret, one of the most chic villages in France, where politicians and film stars make waves, as well as summer homes. Catherine Roux’s little waterside, open air dining room, Cap Huitres, was just what our palates had in mind: Superbly briny oysters opened only seconds before, a few sips of the traditional local white Entre-Deux-Mers, a pleasant enough wine made primarily from the Semillon grape, with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. At its best, it’s a fruity, zesty, lively dry white that thrives in the company of oysters. Fresh lemon, rye bread, and butter are the traditional accompaniment but here, Catherine Roux came up with what I now refer to as “special bread.” She had sliced the rye bread, buttered it, “glued” the loaf back together so to speak, then cut the loaf crosswise to make for festive, buttery, layered slices.
In other villages, such as Le Canon and Port de Claouey, one finds full-fledged waterside restaurants, such as A La Bonne Franquette and La Cabane d’Edouard in the Port de Claouey. There was no room at the charming Cabane, with real wooden bistro tables and chairs and the general feeling of a successful, well-entrenched eatery. We opted, then, for La Bonne Franquette nearby, a large, totally unpretentious open-air restaurant on the water.
An oyster shack in Le Canon
An Oyster Shack in Le Canon
The spot was true to its name, it was all familial and in true simplicity, white plastic chairs and blue oilcloth lines and all. The food was fabulous, tons of ultra-fresh oysters, some of the plumpest mussels around, and sweet, miniature shrimp from the local waters.
We all learn early on in France to only eat oysters in months that end in an “r”, September to December. Most today agree that the legend has little merit today, as it dates back to the days of Louis XIV and a royal edict forbidding farmers from harvesting wild oysters during the months ending in a “r,” the period of reproduction. During the days before oysters were cultivated, this was done to preserve the resource. That said, the oysters do take on a different color, flavor, and texture during those reproductive times. During this time of year we always ask “Are they milky?” and along the route we did indeed see signs saying “Vente d’Huitres Non Laiteuse.”
Note that while the oyster shacks remain open year-round, one will find the villages more lively and active in the summer months. Off season, one may need to pull up a rock to sit on rather than a chair for oyster sampling, but it’s fresh, one’s 100% outdoors, and on vacation, if only for a few moments.
Galeries des Grands-Hommes, Bordeaux
Telephone : 05-56-79-05-89.
La Route des Saveurs de l'Huître
Quartiers des Pêcheurs du Cap Ferret
Telephone: (33) 05-56-60-67-97.
A La Bonne Franquette
Port de Claouey
Lège Cap Ferret