The Cancalaise have been living l'huître life for centuries. It’s said that Louis XIV stocked Varsailles with oysters from the small fishing town of Cancale. Well, if they’re good enough for Louis… It’s considered the ‘oyster capital of France,’ partly due to that fact, but more-so because their tradition of oyster farming dates back to Roman times. Yes, even before man figured out how to make ice. Of the 130,000 or so tons of oysters harvested in France annually, around 25,000 come from Cancale. I’m sure a number of them wind up on menus in Paris, Lyon, Lille, but a good amount are sold and consumed right here.
This cultural status is no secret and the town gets its share of tourists. While the high-season for beaching and sunning is coming to an end, the oyster season is just beginning. They come to eat oysters, of course, but also to see the 7.3 sq kilometers of oyster beds that are said to be visible from the pier. I’m not sure how we missed them, but I blame oyster-consumption-anticipation. I also partially blame Mont Saint Michel, whose fuzzy silhouette could be made out in the distance. A fine distraction.
We were brought to Cancale by a need to eat, stretch our legs and stay awake during the long drive from Paris to Paimpol. Frustrated by the lack of roadside minimarts, which usually provide us with some sort of snack and the double jolt of caffeine and fluorescent lighting, we decided on this detour. It’s pretty hard to complain about a country’s lack of gas station sustenance options when you wind up in a place like this.
The daily oyster market takes place right under the lighthouse, making it particularly easy to find. Six nearly identical stands stood facing one another, four of which were open and three of which were currently manned. We arbitrarily chose one, where this woman sold us a half dozen for 5 euros (there were some for 4 euros, but Merlin has an understandable – probably wise - aversion to discounted shellfish). We opted for the 50 cent shucking service, which was a quick flick of the wrist for her, but would have been a trial by Leatherman for us. We also decided to splurge on a 50 cent lemon wedge.
We took our place on the steps nearby and went about enjoying our little feast. The oysters were briny and sweet and as fresh as can be. The lemon, which was heavy with ripeness, made them even more delicious. As appealing as the bistros that lined the boardwalk - with their chalkboards touting ½ dozen oysters and a glass of Champagne – were, this was exactly the perfect Cancalais huitre experience. When the air is salty and you see and smell ocean all around you - and the sound of seagulls punctuate the melodic waves, lapping up a few feet away – oysters just taste better.
Just like lobster, oysters were originally considered a working class food, a plentiful source of nutrition for people in port towns, long before they became a delicacy. Oysters seem almost luxurious in most settings, served on their bed of ice jewels, uncorrupted. They are undoubtedly the pride of Cancale, but there is a wonderful lack of fanfare. We ate our oysters amid piles of shells, and discarded our own in the same way - clank slurp clank. A quick lemon squeeze wash of the hands and we were back on our way, on the road. A wonderful pit stop.