Chew your oysters

Today I ate three dozen oysters. Is that a lot? I don’t think it’s a lot. I did not eat them quickly or carelessly. I ate them thoughtfully. Thinking of Tony and the three years the oysters have been nourished by the sea in the calm days of late August and the blustery cold of January. I chewed them. Which some people can’t stand. But chewing them releases the oceanic terroir. The slippery rocks, sandy bottoms, clay minerality of their existence.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


You chew, sip the local blanc de blanc, and then look out at the sea. And you understand in a way you cannot when you order a dozen oysters on the half shell as an appetizer at some chichi restaurant in New York what it is to be connected to the land and the sea. It took me coming all the way over to this little speck of an island off the French coast to learn this. But is feels like a valuable lesson. 

Alice B. Toklas at the Bô

Where should I have dinner? I ask Natacha.


She says it so quickly it confuses me. “Is that a restaurant?”

She nods. “Tres chic.”

So I ride my bike to St.-Martin to eat at Bô, sitting at a long zinc table, by myself, in a garden decorated with enormous round candles, the size of pumpkins, colored orange or red or jade. I order a bottle of wine while looking over the menu, a Le Haut-Mesnil Sancerre rose that goes perfectly with the little plate of charcuterie my waitress brings out. She also brings me a basket of bread. It seems that the day of sliced baguette is over. Now you always get an assortment of bread. At Bô you get a wheat baguette with sesame seeds, a fennel galette, and focaccia with currants.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


While I’m sipping my wine and looking at the menu, I notice that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are dining at the table next to me. Ok, not the real Gertrude and Miss B, since they’re dead, but a pretty damn close representation. Gertie is large and squat and wears a plain white shift, black pants, and a florid red scarf. Alice is mousy, dour looking, and in a shapeless housedress. She cuts Gertrude’s foie gras for her (how hard can it be?) and refills her glass of red wine at an exact if invisible mark about one-third up, just where the glass begins to narrow.

Gertrude does all the talking. And eating. Alice just watches and listens. At the feet of Gertrude is a small shaved dog, his head resting on the top of Gertrude’s sandaled feet. Alice pays no attention to the dog, even when Gertrude slips him scraps of rabbit from her plate. Obviously the dog has no use for Alice. And vice versa. 

There are only three or four occupied tables, though when I called earlier to make a reservation they told me the only time I could get in was 7:30, which is a bit early in France. I have come to the conclusion that the French do not like their restaurants full. They provide more tables than diners as a relief to the eye. Or maybe so the waiters won’t have to work too hard (they never seem to work too hard). There is never anyone busting your chops to finish your coffee and throw your AX card on the table. In France, if more than half the tables are occupied just once during the evening, the restaurant is an unqualified success. That’s all there is to it. And when you make a reservation here, it means that a specific table is actually going to be held for you so that it is ready when you arrive. When I gave my name to the hostess, she immediately took me to my large zinc table, which would have been perfect for a party of eight, while seven or eight smaller tables sat empty. Obviously, this was my table. Amazing.

So I order a dozen oysters, of course, and some small clams broiled in their shells with shallots, ham, bread crumbs, and parsley, and then a lobster rissoto with shavings of parmesan and half a spear of asparagus sticking straight up at me. A Gaulic phallic.

It starts to get dark. The pumpkin-sized candles are lit. Slowly the moon rises over the garden. Gertrude and Alice finish their meal. The dog sits in Gertrude’s lap while she sips an espresso. Alice stares at the dog as if she too wishes she could sit in Gertrude’s lap.

When I have finished the Sancerre and a dish of fresh raspberries with crème fraiche, I do not stir. Why should I? It’s a beautiful balmy night and the table is mine for the evening.

Tony the oyster guy

This morning I was sitting out in the garden, enjoying my café au lait, when Natacha came by and slipped a piece of paper beneath the sugar bowl. It said Tony—Huîtriere de Ré. Tony, she said, was a friend of hers. An oyster farmer. She’d made a phone call for me and now I was going to get to spend the morning on an oyster farm! How great is that!

So I got on my funky little 5-speed French bike and rode down the highway for about 20 or 30 minutes, following Natacha’s instruction to look for a little building with a red tractor parked in front, which would be Tony’s huîtriere (a huîtriere being an oyster farm).

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


Tony, looking like a bearded Jeremy Irons, was standing in front, loading boxes on to a flatbed hooked up to a monstrous tractor with wheels 5-feet tall. His eyebrows were thick black caterpillar, his eyes puckered from the glaring sun. He shook my hand and I noticed that his hands were very raw and puffy looking. Like something that has been in salt water for far too long. I made a joke about his hand being “pickled” and he shrugged and said that’s what happens when you have been an oyster farmer for 20 years like he has.

“But I like the job,” he said. “When the weather is nice, like today, it’s very beautiful to be an oyster farmer. And when it rains or the weather is bad, it’s interesting as well. Like life, it’s never the same.”

Tony said if I was going to join him out in the oyster beds, I’d need a pair of hip waders, so he got me some and I pulled them on and then hopped on to the back of the flatbed with the oyster boxes and off we slowly went down the road to Anse du Marty, holding up the traffic behind us, until we got to the flats where tens of thousands of oysters, exposed to the low tide, clung to raised beds a foot or so above the muddy seafloor.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


In our heavy rubber boots, we trudged through red seaweed and shallow pools of water a hundred yards out from the shore and while we walked, Tony told me a bit about the short, happy life of oysters; how they begin life where the ocean is rough and the water is deep so they can develop a hard, rough shell, and are moved, after a year or so, to calmer waters, like here, to fatten up. Though their eating habits are largely dependent on the weather.

“Oysters are like finicky children. If it is too hot, they don’t want to eat. If it is too cold, they won’t eat either. It’s very hard work to get an oyster to eat.”

Oysters get their taste from the sea floor. “Like wine,” he said. “It’s the sand or the rock or the clay that gives them their particular mineral taste.”

He pulled a folding knife from his pocket, pried open a mature huîtriere in his hand, and offered it to me. There was something primordial in the taste. As if this slurpy flinty gray mass in my mouth contained the DNA of all life going back to when we first climbed out of the sea.

Back at the old stone building where the oysters are sorted and stacked in crates, we sat at a picnic table and ate oyster after oyster, washed down with the island wine, just as they did a hundred years ago. After we’d gone through three dozen or so, Tony asked me if I wanted any more.

Frankly, I could have kept going, but wanting to be polite, I said, “I think I’m fine.”

He nodded and smiled. I finished off my glass of wine. He leaned back in his chair. Then he said, “Just a few more.” His wife brought out two dozen more. And we ate those as well.  

Salt and oysters

I know what you’re thinking: Where the hell, exactly, is Île de Ré? Well, it’s on the Atlantic Coast about midway between Paris and Bordeaux. Except you can almost never find it on a map because it’s so small—less than 20 miles long and no more than 3 miles wide at most (in some places you could easily throw an oyster from one side of the island to the other). If you had a map of it, which I never seem to have, it would look a bit like a seahorse. I rather like that image. My hotel, Chat Botté (just saying it—shaw bo-TAY—makes me feel happy) is way up at the top of the island in the village of St.-Clément des Baleines, just a short bike ride from an old stone lighthouse (pharo) that I’ve yet to see.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Ages ago—back when the French still liked Americans—it was actually an archipelago consisting of three even smaller islands. Eventually the shallows between the islands filled in and became salt marshes. The fleur de sel—which many say is the sweetest and best in all the world—made the island rich at one point. We can’t imagine making a fortune from salt, but then we tend to forget that before there was dry ice and Sub-Zero refrigerators, peopled preserved things like cod by packing them in barrels and barrels of salt. No salt, no long ocean voyages to the New World.

The other thing the island has always been known for is its shellfish, particularly oysters. In December, Île de Ré packs and ships over 40 tons of oysters every day to the rest of France (the French are as crazy about oysters as I am).

So, salt and oysters—what else do you need? Well, maybe a little wine. And some potatoes. So they grow spuds here and make wine as well. The thing is, the farmers on Île de Ré didn’t just plant grapes or harvest oysters. They did it all. They’d farm the salt in summer, harvest grapes in the fall, and, when they had time, dig a few spuds or look after the oysters. They were Jacques-of-all-trades. And self-sufficient, which they needed to be because of their relatively isolated status.

Then in 1988, France built a bridge to the island and everything changed. Lots of Parisian day trippers arrived. Lots of cars. But rather than build more roads, which they didn’t have room for anyway, they built bike trails. Literally a hundred miles of trails. And since the island is so small, that’s pretty much how everyone gets around. Including me. 

Natacha runs the front desk at my hotel, Le Chat Botté (which is different from the restaurant of the same name where I had dinner the other night). She also serves breakfast to guests in the garden every morning.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


My French is pitiful but when I first checked in, Natacha was quite generous with me. But this morning she was cold. She strode up to me and, with hands on hips, said, “Que aimez-vous?”

Which seemed like a silly question to me since what everybody gets is the same thing—a basket of bread and pastries along with crocks of homemade peach and strawberry jams.

“Um…the bread basket?” I ventured.

She gave me the French version of the stink-eye. “You must try to speak French,” she said. “It is the best way.”

Nevertheless, she went off and brought me my basket of pastries and a café au lait.

My game plan this afternoon is to go visit an oyster farm on the island. I love oysters. So I asked Natacha, when she came by with more coffee, if she could teach me how to properly say oysters in French.

Wheat-r-r-r-r-r-s,” she said, swallowing and twirling the r’s in her mouth as if she were gargling with them. Each time I said it, she shook her head and said, “Non,” wagging a finger at me like I’d been a naughty boy.

Frustrated as much as I was, she brought her face close to mine, held my hand to her lovely white neck, and told me to watch her mouth and tongue very…very…closely.

Which I did. With great fascination. And just like that, I could say oysters in French.

“Tres bon,” she said.

Natasha taught French in New Orleans until, as she says, Katrina blew her home. I asked her why she doesn’t teach English on Île de Ré instead of working in the hotel and she said she felt like she needed a break from teaching.

“But if you stayed around, I might give you lessons,” she said. “You’re a quick student.”

It’s something to think about, isn’t it?

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