Perched on the terrace above an oyster farmer’s workshop, I was appreciating the view over the Etang de Thau and the town of Sète that climbs up the hill across the lake when I spotted our host in rubber boots fishing algae right out of the water in front of us to garnish a plate of oysters.
“Wow,” I thought, “this aquatic plant that I would not have associated with food if I walked by it on the shore is about to garnish my plate.” The thought was comforting. A little reminder that me and nature are in the same world.
Tony, the oyster and mussels farmer who hosted us for the afternoon, looked up to see a number of curious eyes on the terrace fixed in his direction. With a warm, sage smile we were summoned to come downstairs and take a peek at what it is work in aquaculture.
Downstairs was a red-tiled world of nets, water basins, tables, salt-rusted machines, rope, and so many odds and ends. The room appeared time-worn, but the air was fresh and marine. Puddles of water spotted the ground.
Using a pastry bag filled with newly mixed cement, Tony cemented together baby oysters for “planting” as you can see in the photo above: two oysters on the bottom, a rope, a dab of cement, and one on top. These would later be hung on wooden structures that dot the salty waters of the Etang de Thau.
Bouzigues (pronunciation: boo-zeeg), home of the Oyster of Bouzigues, is a town on the western Mediterranean coast of France. The picturesque town is characterized by wine makers and vacationers. The coastline towards the south of Bouzigues is not fancy, but peopled with working fishermen, each with a little dock, a speedboat, and nets galore.
After seeing the workshop, a few of us headed out in a little boat to see the oysters and mussels up close, and even collect a few. You can see on the right that you need some muscle to pull a string of mussels out of the water. (Sorry, ha!)
We pushed aside the ropes and Tony navigated the boat directly under the wooden structures where strings of oysters and mussels hang. Top right: I picked up a baby mussel that was gliding back and forth in the water in the bottom of the boat. Bottom right: a view of hanging oysters disappearing into the water.
Back on the terrace, we feasted on the treasures from the Etang de Thau. Tony showed us a few classic and delicious recipes. First, we tried mussels with aïoli sauce. Tony whisked his homemade aïoli with some of the warm cooking juice from the mussels, then combined the mussels and sauce in a large bowl, gave a few good shakes to coat, and on the table they went! Equipped with a cool glass of Mas Belles Eaux rosé, a napkin, and greasy little hands, this dish was the beginning of a beautiful meal.
I discovered that we people are not the only amateurs of mussels. This happy little kitty politely waited on a chair for me to pass him a mussel every now and then. He must have eaten about five or more if he had befriended anyone else!
Then came the raw, nature and gastronomy hand in hand. Eating oysters is always a little bit of a transcendental experience. I look at them and think, oh, I’ll eat one or two and a good slice of a crunchy baguette. After two, something fresh and cool, particular to oysters, takes over. It is no longer me who decides, it is the oyster who calls out and asks me to eat four or five more. There is something sensual about oyster eating. They taste more like wind over the sea than like food. There is also something barbaric about sinking your teeth into an oyster’s flesh. You must be totally present and totally animal. Tony’s oysters have a well-balanced salinity and are delicious. For more about oysters, here is a fun article about the taste of oysters at Chow.
After the oysters came a new right of passage: raw mussels. I was in confidence tasting them here where they came from but I must say that I was not prepared for the smack in the face that eating a raw mussel would procure. It was bitter bitter bitter! The taste took over the roof of my mouth, my cheeks, my tongue, and traveled all of the way down my throat almost to my stomach. For five or ten minutes I was breathing a penetrating bitter sea flavor. It was not exactly disagreeable, but there was some massive flavor for one little mussel! One woman at the table absolutely adored raw mussels and couldn’t get enough. A few others found them bitter, but not so strong. They popped a few while I decided to stop at one.
Next up were oysters gratinées. Rich and buttery, these don’t have the same poetry as raw oysters but are delicious as you can imagine. You top each oyster with a small spoonful of butter that you have mixed with herbs or garlic, a sprinkle of grated cheese and bread crumbs, and pop under the broiler for a few minutes.
Though the Etang de Thau is mostly known for its shellfish, some tasty fish also swim the waters. Above, you see anise-stuffed daurade (sea bream) and loup (sea bass) on the barbie. These were fresh, aromatic, and a delight to eat.
Every French meal ends with dessert, and this fine apple tart on puff pastry was a perfect finish to a delicious meal. Paired with a glass of Mas Belles Eaux Vendanges d’Automne (late harvest), it was the icing on the cake to a lovely day.
If you find yourself near Bouzigues and want to buy some super fresh shellfish for a group, you can call Tony in French at 06 14 35 12 72. There are many fishermen on the shores of the Etang de Thau, and you will also find fresh fish and shellfish at the local markets.