I noticed my hand shaking as we drove along the Emerald Coast of Brittany, having just visited Mont-Saint-Michel and the beaches of Normandy right before. We were fast approaching the town of Cancale. Let me begin by admitting that I’ve had the good fortune of enjoying many a great oyster in my life. With a glass of Prosecco at Island Creek in Boston’s Kenmore Square, the restaurants of 14th Street and Hank’s in D.C., the cabanes des huitres in Arcachon Bay before or after a hike up the Dune Pyla… But never in my life have I visited a town so exclusively dedicated to the farming and harvest of these slippery marine treats. Ben often refers to Cancale as the place for oysters in France, and he grew up wolfing down dozens of Fine de Claire huîtres Marenne-Oléron (considered some of the best in the world) at family reunions at their vacation house on Oléron Island. So in matters of the oyster I tend to trust his judgement.
The town centers around Port de la Houle, a shallow harbor with small fishing boats stuck in the wet sand of low tide. Over on one side, there’s a maze of oyster beds – a stone labyrinth set in sand – with dried seaweed clinging to its walls, shells scattered everywhere, and the occasional mussel or barnacle intruding on an environment so absolutely ideal for oysters. The exceptional quality of the plankton known to inhabit the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel first triggered the harvesting of wild oysters here centuries ago. Eventually a fishing community developed here, specializing in oyster farming. At one point Cancale was even declared the official provider of oysters to the royal table of France. The whole town smells of seawater and brine.
On an elevated road there’s a parking lot and a marché aux huitres with five or six vendors selling only oysters. No sweet shrimp, no bulot sea snails, just oysters of different sizes in colorful plastic baskets. Big number 1’s and 2’s for 6 euros a dozen, 3’s for 5 euros, 4’s for 4 euros. I got mine from a guy selling oysters from the Cahue family, who’ve been dedicated to the raising and shipment of 100% natural Cancalees oysters for four generations. These little guys are born in open sea and only then introduced to the farms where they grow until harvest.
We ordered and the guy got to shucking a dozen, placing each into one of the 12 dents on a circular aluminium tray, careful not to spill any of the precious juice inside. And with a lemon wedge on top, he handed it to me. We paid and took it up to the long stone border overlooking the farm similar to where they were picked fresh.
The local way is to pick one up, squeeze of lemon, slurp, and throw the shell down to the beach. The oysters are slightly flatter that one’s I’ve had before. They are, needless to say, spectacularly fresh with just a faint hint of brine, but otherwise crisp and clean, like French-kissing the blue French ocean. A quick meal, followed by a quick beer at one of the many lively bars lining the port-front promenade, and we were off to St. Malo with plenty of pictures to drool over later. Cancale, check. A necessary stopping point.