Bourcefranc-le-Chapus—I used to live in dark times in Moscow. One late winter day when there was a watery but unmistakable sun visible in the sky, a Russian in my office pointed at it and asked, in mock outrage, “Who authorized this?” We all laughed. Sort of.
Moscow in those days was dreary, with little fresh fish, largely limited to the muddy carp or sturgeon. It was then I became obsessed with fresh oysters—that briny-sweet taste of seawater mixed with a touch of iodine, served with crusty French bread and a glass, slightly beaded with cold, of fine Sancerre.
For me, this is still the taste of God in the mouth. And here in France, by the sea, near Rochefort and the Ile d’Oléron, I have found some of that divinity’s most loyal priests: the family Gillardeau.
I came to this area of salt flats and seabirds along France’s western coast, 300 miles from Paris, to solve a mystery. In Paris I had noticed that a certain oyster, the Gillardeau, was featured in gourmet shops like La Grande Epicerie at Le Bon Marché and the food halls in the Galeries Lafayette. And that it brought a higher price. More importantly, I had tasted one—it was nuttier and fleshier than many others, almost crunchy, and even slightly sweet. In short, perfection.
But what was Gillardeau? And what made it so special? A little research revealed it to be the name of a family, one like so many others engaged in producing oysters, except that it has managed a unique feat. Through word of mouth alone, and extraordinarily, for such a primitive and common product, Gillardeau has become the brand name in oysters. Gillardeaus—the family produces only spéciales, which are plumper than the standard—figure on the menus of some of the finest restaurants in Paris, from Taillevent to Le Dôme. In the last 15 years sales have increased about 20 percent annually.
Now run by the family’s fourth generation of oyster farmers, Gillardeau remains a small private company, just as it was when it was founded about 120 years ago by Henri, an illiterate farmhand who turned from herding cows to cultivating oysters. Henri did well enough to build a large house opposite the city hall in this village of 3,500 people, a house he called Ça m’suffit, or That’ll Do.
At that time, in the early 1900s, oyster seedlings were raised in small basins next to the sea and farmed in flat-bottom boats, with much of the work done by hand. Today the Gillardeau company selects and packs its oysters here, but it grows them in Normandy, near Utah Beach, and in several spots in rural Ireland, where the water quality is much better.
The Gillardeau difference, says Thierry Gillardeau, 38, who runs the business with his wife, Véronique, 35, “is selection—we are very demanding.” They buy seedlings between one and two years of age, then farm them for the next two to five years, coaxing them into a lemon-like shape, maximizing the quantity of the flesh by carefully adjusting the feed, depth, and salinity of the water. To prevent them from clumping, Gillardeau puts only 135 to 150 oysters in each of the thick plastic-screen sacks that can hold a thousand. Every two weeks, workers with tractors turn the sacks to “stress” the oysters, causing them to eat more, and to knock off any smaller mollusks that have attached themselves to the oysters’ shells.
The oysters are then trucked here, to a small group of buildings full of strange, specially made machines, to be finished for several weeks in carefully monitored ponds, then repeatedly washed and sorted for size. And before their oysters are packed by hand in traditional wooden baskets, Thierry or his father, Gérard, makes sure to taste a few.
Véronique left her life in Paris to marry Thierry and now runs the business side of things here. She’s proud of the company and amused by the neighbors who sneak oysters out of Gillardeau ponds just to taste them. “It’s a small village, and everyone is in the same line of work,’’ she says. “People count the boxes we ship and try to understand why we’re different.’’
And different they are. Just have a taste. Do so in Paris. Or better yet, do it here where they are freshest, at the edge of the sea, on the Ile d’Oléron, where the beach hotel and restaurant L’Albatros proudly serves the oysters of their extraordinary neighbors from across the causeway, the family Gillardeau.
The Hôtel Restaurant L’Albatros is located on the Plage du Soleil in St.-Trojan-les-Bains. For more information, go to albatros-hotel-oleron.com.