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Oysters for New Year Feasts! An Interview with Alain Morvan, Oyster Farmer in Carantec

For the French, Oysters are as synonymous with New Year celebrations as Turkey with Christmas for the British. Whether you like them raw with a glass of good wine or prepared as part of a main meal, oysters are a must-have for ringing in the next year.

We met up with Alain Morvan, Oyster Farmer in Carantec, at his place of work, so he could tell us all about his passion for his work that is so closely linked to nature: he is one of the Sea Gardeners.

Alain Morvan is Carantec born and bred, but - unlike his father and his grandfather - his career didn’t begin in oyster farming. Instead, he went into industry, spending over a decade in Paris. Finally, in 1993, he decided to come back to Brittany and take over the family business that had been founded in 1947. Representing the 3rd generation of oyster farmers, the rhythm of the tides is in his blood and he faces his 19th New Year rush with impressive calm.
huitres à Carantec, Bretagne

How would you define the work of an Oyster Farmer?

You have to be passionate about it, maybe you even have to be born into it. You can’t be afraid of getting hurt, it’s physical work, and you’ve got to be prepared to take a risk.

In your profession, what must you never be without?

Your tide timetables and your oyster knife.

Can you share any particular memories about your work?

I remember a few years ago getting a call from someone in a state of panic. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was the secretary of an Emir from a Middle Eastern emirate like Dubai. The secretary was determined to offer oysters at some major reception and, because a job worth doing is worth doing yourself, this secretary came over by private jet, and collected our oysters from Brest-Guipavas airport!

What’s the end of the year like for you and your business?

To give you an idea in figures, 75% of French people only eat oysters once a year, and that’s at New Year. If these people started eating oysters more than once a year, French production would never be able to meet the demand. This doesn’t mean to say that no-one eats oysters at any other time, of course, because we have some very loyal customers - some of whom even eat oysters every week!
huitres à Carantec, Bretagne
We currently have two markets: the main market for which we send out oysters to other distributors for the New Year period, and then the local market for which we supply various supermarkets in a 30-km radius of Carantec. Then there’s also a few direct sales to the public.
For us, the festive season begins well before December and the first sales happen in mid-October. There are five of us working for the peak season between mid-October and mid-March: one permanent member of staff and four seasonal members of staff. November 2012 was particularly intense.
The direct sales to the public are increasing. Before, I used to handle the Christmas Eve sames on my own; now there are five of us to handle it. In 2010, we counted 200 visits to our premises on Christmas Eve alone!

What stages does the oyster go through before it reaches our plate?

The oysters can be collected once they’re two years old, but they can remain in the oyster farm for another year or even a little longer.
There are three types of farming here in Morlaix-Penzé: the oysters can be placed in wire cages that are raised up to protect them from predators; they can also be farmed on the sandy ground exposed at low tide, in specially-managed grounds: or they can also be farmed in deep water, up to 15m deep in fact, and in that case you farm them using dredging boats.
When we gather in the oysters, they’re no bigger than 5 to 10 mm. For a year they are in the grow-out phase in our oyster parks. After this, the clusters of oysters are gathered and separated, which is also a good opportunity to do some checks on quality and size. The pockets containing the oysters are then put back into the water in different zones according to their size.
Then, they are handled every month until they reach adult size: the pockets are turned and shaken to aerate them and achieve a consistent growth. In October, they are taken up again, the oysters are calibrated, stocked and packaged for sale.
Over the three-year typical period, each oyster is probably handled thirty times.

Are there any factors that improve the quality of production?

During the growth stage the oyster is influenced by various natural factors: the number of phytoplanctons, the saltiness of the water, the currents, the tides..... In any case, an environment rich in phytoplanctons means one that is constantly fed by fresh water. That’s why you find a lot of Oyster Farms in the bays and estuaries of Brittany, where conditions are good for plump oysters with a good flavour.

Already, by early December, people are thinking about their New Year celebrations - what advice would you have to help people purchase really good oysters?

First of all, the most important thing is to check the date they were packaged. They’ll be at their best within those 2 to 3 days after packaging. You can stretch this up to a week but no more.
The next piece of advice is so you don’t end up eating a bad oyster: tap it on the table before you try to open it. If it sounds hollow, put it to one side, because it has emptied its water and you won’t want to be eating that.

What wine would you recommend?

I find that Sancèrre goes really well with a plate of good oysters. Some people like to add shallots, lemon or pepper to their oysters.
Really, they’re so good that you shouldn’t wait til the end of the year to enjoy them!

If you’d like to meet up with Alain Morvan, here are the details you’ll need:

M. Alain Morvan, EARL Varquez, Le Varquez, 29660 Carantec
Tel: 00+33 (0)2 98 67 01 81

Opening hours for direct sales to the public:
All year round, Monday to Friday, 8am to 5.30pm and Saturday mornings 10am to midday.
Open 24th and 31st December 8am to 4.30pm.
Please note: you are strongly advised to call ahead and order your oysters before coming to collect them.

There are about twenty oyster farms within Morlaix Bay, from St Pol de Léon to Plougasnou.

If you’d like to buy direct from a producer, you can also try:

La Maison de l’Huître – Prat ar Coum (oysters, mussels, shellfish and crabs and lobsters)
Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-12 and 3pm-6pm, plus Sundays 10am-midday.
Contact: Pointe de Pen al Lann, 29660 Carantec
Tel: 00+33 (0)2 98 67 03 64

Viviers Willman (fish, shellfish, crabs and lobsters)
Open: 10am – 7.30pm / also in local markets
Address: Le Varquez, 29660 Carantec
Tel: 00+33 (0)2 98 78 30 68 ou (0)2 98 67 03 64