To my shame, I’ve never fully loved oysters. It’s the foodie equivalent of a hardcore fashionista saying ‘whatever’ to Alexander McQueen. Over the years, I’ve gone from ‘bleurgh’ through take ’em or leave ’em to an uneasy truce with the slippery bivalves. Until now.
travelling round Etang de Thau in the Hérault region of the Languedoc, a vast
inland lagoon. Its curious makeup – salt water stirred by fresh water from
chalk hills – makes this area France’s leading producer of the finest
Crassostrea gigas and Ostrea edulis. Our base is the hotel apartment complex
and spa, Port Rive Gauche in
Marseillan; our exquisitely decorated suite draws gasps of furious envy when I
post a snap of it on Twitter. From our sunny terrace, we can make out the
beginning of miles and miles of the peculiar oyster tables.
It’s at Le Glacier, an endearingly
under-designed joint (hello, anaglypta), that I meet my life-changing bivalve.
Called a Spéciale Tarbouriech, or Pink Diamond, it’s entirely unique to the
eponymous producer, spending half its time basking in the sun and half
submerged in the water. The large, lacy shell is edged with blush pink and its
flavour is a revelation: sweet, oceanic, outrageously fresh, leaving in its
wake a memory of the sea with subtle notes of hazelnut. We also learn to eat
the connective tissue between shell and mollusc, la membrane, an extra little
treat like a mini scallop. Who knew?
hungover – look, the crisp, fragrant local picpoul de pinet is too seductive –
we’re not entirely up for a visit to Marseillan’s most famous native, venerable
vermouth company Noilly Prat. Maybe it’s
something to do with the fragrant aromas – unusually, barrels of wine are left
in the open to absorb the salty air by osmosis – or maybe it’s the salty air
itself, but we soon feel quite perky. Is it wrong to be necking cocktails,
expertly mixed by Jean-Louis Mastoro, the twinkly Maître de Chai
(cellarmaster), in the building’s VIP bar at ten in the morning? The
deceptively innocuous little number is made with Noilly Prat Ambre, a sexy,
honey-hued speciality only available here and nowhere else in the world. Guess
what we’re taking home?
spend all your time pottering along the town’s little creek, where restaurants,
cafés and bars populated by outrageously chic, platinum-helmeted and
scarlet-lipped mesdames line the quayside. Our favourite is La Taverne du Port, which functions as
local hangout, wine shop, oyster bar and truffle purveyor. A son of the owning
family, Bruno Henri, is its linchpin, waxing lyrical about his extensive stock:
everything from local biodynamic wines and recherché whiffy cheeses to uncommon
just down the road, is the heart of the ostreiculture industry. We drive past
vineyard after vineyard, all specialising in picpoul; the wine and shellfish
industries work together to ensure a splendidly symbiotic pairing. The place is
awash with oystermongers producing and selling the shellfish – from shack to
sophisticated restaurant; we choose Les Jardins de la Mer (Avenue Louis Tudesq,
34140 Bouzigues; 00 33 4 67 78 33 23) because of its vine branch-burning open
oven and astonishing view over oyster flats stained almost burgundy by the
deepening sunset. Teeny, whiskery brown shrimp, vast platters of fruits de mer,
whole fish pleasingly scorched on the embers: simple stuff, simply served.
the other side of the lagoon, is often called the Venice of the Languedoc, its
broad avenues interlaced with canals. Our lunch here isn’t a happy affair:
overcooked fish bizarrely accessorised by soggy quinoa and dishes randomly set
on fire for some kind of theatrical effect. We were hoping for the native
bourride (fish stew), but that’s clearly so last century. The oysters? Blameless,
but it would be outrageous if they weren’t. I’m not going to name and shame;
oh, ok then: Au Bord du Canal. Seems that the days when you could be assured of
a good meal anywhere in France are no more.
night sees us back in Marseillan, in Delicatessen (4 Place Général Guillaut; 00
33 4 67 77 38 93) a funky, flea-market-furnished joint. There’s a handsome dog
holding court at one of the tables while his equally handsome owner serves
dinner. The blackboard menu is short and lovely: oysters (but you guessed that,
didn’t you?), leek velouté, bone marrow dressed simply with fat flakes of sel
de Guérande, eel from the lagoon, beef cheek and tail in meaty red wine, a
towering burger topped with stinky cheese. Wine is decanted into old Ricard
water bottles and sloshed into beakers; the suspiciously cheap ‘bill’ is
scrawled on your table. Forget the peach drapery, improbable tableware and
shiny trousers of the town’s ‘posh’ places – yes, La Table d’Emilie, I do mean
you – this is the provincial France of all our fantasies.
The article 'Postcard from Etang de Thau, France' was published in partnership with BBC Olive magazine.