In the town of Arcachon, on the southwestern coast of France, the air smells of the ocean. Victorian Arcachonnaise villas face the water, and the seafront promenade is bustling with the bourgeoisie of nearby Bordeaux, many of whom still remember when the place was undeveloped, rough land, lined with pine trees and oak. On the western side of the Arcachon commune you’ll find a straight coast lined with fine sand beaches, and crowned by Europe’s largest sand dune, a beloved natural wonder, nearly 3 km long, 500 m wide and 110 m high. The dune technically belongs to the commune of La Teste-de-Buch, south of Arcachon and the Arcachon Bay. This part of the bay is famous for its fresh seafood – specifically, oysters.
Along the waterfront you will find clusters of rustic wooden cabins, each with a very simple “shucking area” and an outdoor space with tables and chairs set amidst cradles of oysters and clams, all brought in fresh each day. You enter, take a seat, choose between small, medium or large oysters, order a chilled bottle of wine, maybe some clams or fresh shrimps, if they have those. A basket of bread and salted butter accompanies each order. It’s a simple operation, since the menu consists of only 5 or 6 options, all of which are usually raw, and thus require no preparation or equipment, beside a shucking knife and plenty of ice. Some places offer small jars of rillette or foie, or slices of pâté, just in case the raw menu leave you hungry. But really, it’s all about the oysters at these cabanes à huîtres, the freshness of them, the complexity of their liquor, their glorious and classic harmony with dry, chilled white wine, the view of the murky, cold ocean from which they were sourced, then the bread-and-butter break to make the dozen last longer, and yet another sip of white in anticipation of the next briny marine gem.
We chose La Cabane de l’Aiguillon at the edge of the Bassin d’Arcachon. In the summer they open their terrace, a beautiful space under the shade of a tree and a pergola covered with grapevines, from which large bunches of white grapes dangle low.
After placing our order, I took a few minutes to walk around and explore the place, camera around my neck. The rustic wooden tables and chairs face the edge of the water, where boating and farming equipment, tall stacks of still-wet crates and mounds of discarded shellfish shells are left for convenience’s sake. There is also a gorgeous, wooden-floored deck area built over a sandbar that juts into the water, the cabane’s own precious peninsula, from which guests can enjoy remarkable views of the entire bay. In the middle of the dining space I passed two concrete underground tanks, filled with salt water, along with crates of live oysters, periwinkles and clams. At the end of the day the fisherman throws back the bivalves that weren’t sold so that they may rest one more night before meeting their doom.
In the “kitchen” are two guys shucking non-stop, arranging half-dozens and dozens onto metal trays of ice, sticking a lemon and butter packet in the center of each. They seem to be having a fantastic time, the older guy chatting and laughing with his friend, the younger more serious, but cracking a smile now and then.
Waiting in anticipation…
We both ordered the “Oyster Farmer Special,” which included 3 small, 3 medium and 3 large oysters. These were absolutely wonderful, icy cool, wet and smooth, curling around the tongue and sliding softly down the back of my throat after one or two chews. The precious liquor was briny and delicious, a cocktail of seawater and the oyster’s life fluid, slightly murky and packed with the animal’s very essence.of local environmental health. These were perfectly clean and fresh, tasting of the smell of Arcachon, a truly representative product of this beautiful terroir.
We also ordered the palourdes d’Arcachon, which are a type of small Manilla clam with a pretty marbled shell. These can be found living in mud and are hand-gathered by skilled fishermen, who look for two side-by-side air holes in the mud, a sure giveaway sign of the palourde. They are scrubbed clean, and either steamed or served raw, as in the cabane. The clams sit marinating in their own briny juice, giving them a slightly musty ocean smell. The texture is slippery, slimy in the beginning with a nice chewiness and plenty of juice bursting from the flesh. The marine saltiness is balanced with a subtle scallop-esque sweetness in the aftertaste.
With fresh bread, creamy butter, some terrine des copains made with Basque Espelette peppers, and a chilled bottle of Tariquet, dinner at La Cabane de l’Aiguillon was exactly what we had been craving from the moment we arrived in Arcachon: a feast of good fresh things as close as could be to the sea that produced them.