From iron man to oyster farmer
Samantha David meets Didier Fournier, who gave up a career as a metal worker to produce oysters on Ile de Ré
The step from metal worker to oyster farmer is not at first glance an obvious one - but it is just the career change that Didier Fournier made in 2003, when he moved to the Ile de Ré.
But even that was not enough for the iron man with a passion for the sea. After five years, he left the oyster producers he worked for to go it alone. And now, he and his wife Alexandra sell more than 10 tonnes of oysters every year.
"I used to start with nothing and work with metal to make something pretty. Growing oysters is much the same," he said. "You start with nothing and juggle techniques to produce beautiful oysters, just when people want them."
Traditionally, it was said that oysters were best eaten during the months which contain an "R" - ie all year round except for May-August but modern production techniques mean, these days, oysters can be eaten all year round.
It takes three years to produce an oyster. They reproduce between May and August, when females emit up to 5 million eggs and males emit up to 2.7 billion sperm which float around in the sea around the oyster bed. The fertilised eggs develop organs and tissues in just four hours but continue to float around for up to a fortnight before they attach themselves to a hard surface, usually on the sea bed.
The sea bed is sandy, so Didier makes bundles of plastic tubes which are tied to metal tables which only appear at the lowest tides. The newly fertilised oysters are microscopically small, so can only been seen the following January as the shells begin to form.
The faggots of tubes are then separated and reattached to the tables to allow the oysters space to grow. "In a good season, there are around 250 oysters on each tube," explains Didier. He places around 6,000 tubes in the sea each summer.
When they are a year old, the oysters are brought ashore, carefully detached from the tubes, and from each other, and graded according to size and weight. Then they are placed into large metal cages which look like sacks. These sacks are then placed back into the sea so that the oysters can continue to grow naturally. At 18 months the sacks are turned so that the oysters can continue feeding, and at two years old, they are re-calibrated using a machine to sort them according to size and weight.
The process continues for another year. "We keep sorting and cleaning them, making them as perfect as possible. And in order to have them ready just at the right times, for bank holidays and New Year, for example, we juggle their position in the sea. The deeper they are, they less often they are uncovered by the tide and the larger they grow. Nearer the shore they get fatter inside their shells," explains Didier. "So to produce the perfect oyster and to have them ready at all times, we have to keep sorting and calibrating them - and putting them back into different positions on the beach."
The final stage, when the oysters are three years old, is cleaning. "Oysters filter. That's what they are, and what they do. They filter seawater and thrive on the plankton. So to clean them, we put them in seawater which has already had the sand and other particles filtered out of it, so the oysters clean themselves and pump out the sand inside them so that they are ready to eat."
Visitors can watch many of these processes happening while enjoying the fruits of Didier's labours at his beach bar, where tables made out of tree trunks that washed up on shore are set around shallow basins containing sacks of oysters. Looking out to see at high tide, it's hard to spot the oyster beds, but at low tide you can watch Didier driving his red tractor across the wet sands to tend to them as you eat the results of three years' hard work, accompanied by chilled wine.
There is no official organic label for oysters, because all edible oysters are naturally organic. The sea water around oyster beds is regularly checked for pollution. They are usually eaten raw but can be grilled or cooked on a barbeque. But oyster connoisseurs say the best way to eat them is freshly shucked, with a view of the sea.