Will there be Oysters for Christmas

Will there be oysters on French tables this Christmas? Yes, but the punters may struggle to afford them … for this highly prized traditional festive delicacy is  threatened by a deadly virus. As supply dwindles, prices soar.

Working on oysters at Belon, Brittany, France

Working on oysters at Belon, Brittany, France Image: Wikipedia

It was the Roman Sergius Orata, (140-91 BC), so the legend goes, who first hit on the idea of cultivating oyster beds, and today in Europe France leads both in oyster farming and oyster dining. But for how much longer?

The French oyster industry, worth some 400 million euros a year, is worried. It says domestic oyster-bed production is set to decline 40-50% this year thanks to the onset in 2008, of a pestiferous herpes that has haunted parts of the French coastline and whose ongoing impact has so far caused some 60% of immature oysters to rollover and die.

Normally the vast Parisian food market at Rungis, 7 kms from the centre of the capital, gears up to sell 500 tonnes of oysters in the week before Noël, but market traders are gloomy about the outlook for this Christmas as the “disturbing ongoing death of spats and young oysters” continues to cast a pall over the industry.

Traders say demand at the moment for normal consumption of French raised oysters, some six months ahead of the festive season, is already restricted and prices, which last year rose by 50% just before the festive rush, are not expected to ease this year.

Indeed, said one oysterman, they are likely to go even higher – there are brasseries in Paris now selling the largest oysters for nearly 7 euros each!! — as the disease continues to take its toll.

Anguish and handwringing all round as this must-have mollusc looks set to become a prohibitively expensive Christmas accessory.

Worse the government’s rescue plan has gone badly awry since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11.

France had been planning to mitigate the oyster bed disaster with Japanese oyster seed, but the earthquake and tsunami ravaged Miyagi prefecture’s fishing industry where in 2009 80% of Japan’s oyster seeds were generated. France last year imported young Miyagi oysters to test their resistance to the Ostreid herpesvirus 1, or OsHV-1 that has wreaked such havoc in the famous Brittany beds.

Maryline Maingam, a spokeswoman for Institut Français de Recherche pour l’Exploitation de la Mer (IFREMER) told Bloomberg new agency the Japan disaster “delays our exit from the crisis. There will still be oysters, but far fewer, and for the next two years, we expect production losses of 40 to 50%.”

While cultivation in the Arcachon basin southwest of Bordeaux has been spared, virtually all other oyster farmers in western France — Normandy – North Sea (Pacific oysters), Northern Brittany (flat oyster) Southern Brittany, (spat and young flat oysters for other oyster-farming centres), Pays De Loire (“Vendée Atlantique” and Pertuis oysters), Poitou Charentes (Marennes Oléron “Fines de Claires Vertes” and “Spéciales Pousse en Claire”) and in the Mediteranean (Bouzigues) have been badly affected and in some cases decimated by the death of OsHV-1-positive young oysters.

Of course oysters are imported from others producer countries but as always in France, it is terroir that counts and local oysters are in premium demand.

Annual European oyster production is around 126 000 tonnes with France the leader at 115 000 tonnes/year. French oyster production is essentially based on rearing Pacific cupped oysters — Crassostrea gigas — introduced from Canada and Japan in the early 1970’s after the Portuguese oyster C. angulata was wiped out by irido-like virus infections

The origins of the high mortality that hit the oyster beds in 2008, is, according to researchers at IFREMER the herpes virus.

But not all oyster farmers accept the official explanation for the crisis.

Jean-Luc Tonneau told Paris’s Liberation newspaper: “We already knew the herpes virus since the 1990s that affected oysters occasionally, regardless of their age and size , he said. But what has been happening these past three years is very different. Only oysters less than a year old are affected and are decimated at the summer solstice within 24 hours. Although the herpes virus may bear some responsibility, it should not be singled out to the exclusion of all else. Other avenues should be explored such as the degeneration of the species, a threat that we have seen growing over the past thirty years, where the influence of pesticides could explain a correlation between the mortality of oysters and of bees.”

M. Tonneau, 53, is among the smaller producers in the famous Normandy oyster bay of Mont Saint-Michel. With three acres of oyster beds and four employees, in 2007 his best year, he produced seventy tons of marketable oysters. Since then, production has declined steadily. ” Like all other oyster farms in the area, we have seen an 80% loss of spats (oysters under a year old) in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Since it takes three years to raise an oyster for the table, we are only now beginning to see the full consequences.”

Jean-Luc Tonneau’s gloomy prediction is that his beds will see output fall to 40 tonnes in 2011, 30 in 2012 and so on … “And I am not one of the worst affected” , he said. “Youngsters just starting out in the beds are heavily in debt and face bankruptcy thanks to this disease. For my generation the problem is primarily retirement for when we come to sell these beds they will have no value if this goes on”.

M Tonneau scepticism about herpes may be just a manifestation of stoic Gallic mistrust of authority. Researchers at IFREMER have published preliminary findings which appear fully to bear out their initial fears and investigation.

The industry’s main hope resides in the work of scientists seeking ways of beating the herpes “In the end, it may prove to be a blessing in disguise,” suggests M Tonneau. “No doubt we have indulged in excessive industrialization of production, and this will perhaps force a return to a more traditional methods and rhythms of production” .

Meanwhile, oyster farmers have no choice but to cut back on staff and raise prices by some 15% to 20%. In the Cancale region with 50 oyster farms operating, production is set to decline from 6,000 to 4,000 tons this year.

As the price rises oysters become a valuable asset attracting the criminal fraternity. Earlier this year according to several reports, a 51-year-old man was arrested for stealing 240,000 oysters in what is thought to be France’s biggest ever shellfish theft. He had been employed to clean disused oyster farms, but during four trips on his barge, he managed to pilfer 14.4 tonnes of oysters from working farms. Police on the island of Oleron (Château-d’Oléron, sur l’île d’Oléron (Charente-maritime) say some of his haul has been returned. The suspect had stolen the oysters from the farms off France’s western coast between December and February, police said.

Oysters, Austern, France

Image via Wikipedia

There are Oysters and there are Huîtres:
As you might expect real oysters in France always take an adjectival phrase so you will find consumers asking for oysters with special characteristics, the inheritance of their terroir, the subtleties of which gives oyster Illuminati plenty to talk about when it comes to chucking down these pearly delights.

Here to help is a short and selective adjectival tag list:
The hollow Isigny (Normandy) or (Les creuses d’Isigny): a heavy gauge oyster, deep and rather fleshy, often green or yellow, with a strong oyster taste, spends only a short time in pens and develops at sea, making it fat and delicious.
The hollow Paimpol (Côtes-d’Armor and region) or ( Les creuses de Paimpol): a gray-green appetizing oyster that is big-bodied both in taste and in amply filling its shell.
Aber-Wrach (Finistere North): regarded by many connoisseurs as just the best oyster in the country.
The Gulf of Morbihan: probably one of the largest producers of France, but where pollution is wreaking havoc with the oysters’ eco system.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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One Response to Will there be Oysters for Christmas

  1. Pingback: French oysters under siege: http://french-news-online.com/wordpress/?p=6461#axzz1QU4bAKT4 | Rodney's Oyster House Toronto

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