Cancale, the Breton oyster capital.4 min read
“Comme un oiseau géant se garant des tempêtes au creux des rochers et des falaises hautes, Cancale se blottit, frileuse, au pied des côtes. ”
Like a giant bird, guarding from the storms in the immersions of the cliffs and high rocks, Cancale nestles to the foot of the coast.
It’s easy will be amazed by Cancale, Kankaven in Breton, a small fishing village, nestling at the foot of granite cliffs, in the bay of Mont St Michel: taditional granite houses, the oyster market, the smell of the sea, and the lighthouse are really nice and picturesque! Saint-Méen, a preacher monk from Cornwall founded the village during the 6th century AD.
The little harbour of Cancale is famous for centuries for ostreiculture, and here are cultivated oysters on terraces flooded and flushed by the tide. The tides here, at the western tip of Mont-St-Michel Bay (the namesake abbey stands silhouetted on the horizon), are among the largest in the world, and leaving scores of fishing boats stranded on the silty seabed. The sea ebbs even from 6 to 14 kilometres, and the colorful boats lay down in the silt until the tide rises to let them float again. With high tide, the English Channel takes incredible colors like emerald green, turquoise blue and others wonderful shades. The sea takes a multitude of shades of green that evolve with the day light and it’s easy understand why this coastal area is called the Emerald Coast!
Just above, there are lot of superb seafood restaurants along the quayside, and if you like oysters, Cancale is the place to visit as it the oyster capital of Brittany!
In fact, life and work in Cancale is based on the “queen” of mussels: the oyster.
It seems that the exceptional quality of the plankton that grows in the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel indeed triggered the establishment and reproduction of wild oysters.
So, Cancale has since ancient times specialized in the culture of the native indigenous oysters with flat shells (huître plate) or Belon.
Some 2000 years ago, the Romans already collected oysters when they invaded France and soon small fishing communities appeared on the shores of the Baie in order to exploit the wild oyster beds.
As result, a thriving oyster farming industry developed.
Throughout history, the French kings were so fond of shellfish, especially the oysters, that Cancale became the official supplier to the royal table.
Although oysters have always been a delicacy greatly appreciated in France, their consumption spread to all well-off French classes in the early 19th century, when seaside resorts became trendy.
Now there are now two kinds of oysters in France: the flat-shell oysters (Ostrea edulis), which are native to the French coasts, and the rounded or hollow Japanese oysters (Crassostrea gigas). Oyster farming thrived until 1920 when an unknown disease decimated them. However, the import of wild flat-shell oysters from Auray, another Breton fishing harbour escaped contamination, revived Cancale’s oyster farming.
The other French areas specialized in oyster farming imported oysters from Japan, a species with rounded or hollow shells (named in French huître creuse).
France is today the first European producer of oysters, even if the Baie du Mont Saint-Michel has specialized in the farming of the flat-shell Belon oysters, which, as a curiosity, represent only 2% of the national production!
Cancale produce about 25,000 tons of oysters per year, and farming is a long process.
Briefly, it starts with the breading of the larvae which attach to various collectors like tiles, slates, wood, iron or plastic.
After 6 months of age, the young oysters are placed in plastic bags or pockets (poche) mounted on iron table in oyster beds.
The water is changed regularly and the oysters graded.
Then they are placed for 6 months in special ponds where the quality and colour of their flesh and hardness of their shell is improved.
So, the oysters are ready for commercialization and we eat them after 2 to 3 years!