Not only have the French mastered the art of growing some of the world’s finest oysters, they have – perhaps more importantly – mastered the finer art of enjoying them. And although Paris may be the oyster capital of the world, nothing beats enjoying everyone’s favourite mollusc by the sea, with a bottle of bubbles, in idyllic surrounds.
Here are our favourite oyster destinations for shucking and slurping France’s finest oysters straight from the source.
Cancale, on Brittany’s Emerald Coast, is a quaint port village with a colossal reputation for oysters. The quality of its bay’s catch has been reputed since Roman times, and its oysters were said to have been preferred by Louis XIV who would have them delivered daily, by horse, to the Versailles Palace.
Today, Cancale remains home to some of the world’s finest oysters. And although there is a great variety of the familiar Pacific oysters (particularly sweet and succulent in these parts), Cancale is a great destination to sample the native European Flat, a smooth shallow oyster, with a more distinct seaweed and mineral flavour, referred to as belons or plates by the locals. If available, don’t skip the locally famed pied de cheval, harvested very late (up to 15 years) after several years growth resulting in a very large but tender oyster that requires some brute strength to prise open (around €5 a piece).
Whatever your fancy, head down to the all-day oyster market at the tip of Cancale’s pretty harbour and you’ll find a vast selection (starting from €5 a dozen) that can be enjoyed overlooking the wild Emerald Coast. Don’t forget to take a bottle of wine or local cider down with you; that’s what you’ll find the locals doing.
Beyond oysters, Cancale is one France’s best food towns, home to Olivier Roellinger’s food empire, and the Breizh Café creperie and adjoining Japanese restaurant. The former has luxury accommodation options across town (including the grand Chateau Richeux), while the former offers minimalist zen guestrooms for those looking to stay the night. Beyond these, Cancale port is home to some great ageing seaside hotels, and a coterie of harbourside eateries serving some of Brittany’s most abundant seafood platters.
L’Île de Ré
You may not associate France’s Atlantic coast with picture perfect islands and idyllic white sand beaches, but that will all change after a visit to the postcard-pretty L’Île de Ré. Each summer, chic Parisians flock to this island in favour of the crowded beaches of the Riviera to discover the island’s many old ports, cycle the bike paths that weave through the island’s many vineyards, and enjoy oysters by the sea.
A typical day on l’Île de Ré often involves a beachside oyster lunch at one of island’s many cabane à Huîtres – rustic wooden oyster shacks with sea-facing terraces built by oestriculteurs on their oyster farms – where you’ll find the freshest oysters, chilled wine and gourmand seafood platters. The seaside degustation is an unforgettable way to sample oysters from this part of France that are known for their quality and flavour. Don’t skip tasting the fines or speciales de claires that have been matured in claires (sea-side oyster basins filled with saltwater to refine the oyster and remove impurities while it fattens).
Oyster consumption doesn’t stop outside of the cabanes, and you’ll see many island holidaymakers downing the local speciality with a bottle of the local sauvignon blanc in the numerous cafes and bistros that adorn the old ports along the Island’s northern coast. Saint-Martin de Ré (a UNESCO heritage protected former citadel that has retained all of its old charms) is the largest and oldest of these, and remains the cultural centre of island life.
Overlooking the harbour here is the Hotel Tsoiras, a refurbished 17th century shipbuilders house that oozes old-school charm. There is a small dining room, La Table d’Olivia, serving simple and refined seafood dishes, where bookings are essential, even for hotel guests. From here, you are only a skip away from the harbour’s eateries, all of which serve excellent quality seafood with harbour views.
When the weather is warmer, you may prefer to stay on one of the beachside villages that straddle the south coast of the island stretching between Rivedoux Plage in the east, to Saint-Clément-des-Baleines on the isolated west coast. Our favourite of these is Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. Centrally located, with a buzzing food and craft market, a stunning long beach, and a diverse selection of cafes, beach bars, and restaurants. L’Hotel Restaurant l’Ocean is one of the better quality dining options, and also offers cosy rooms in a charming cottage with a well appointed swimming pool, with doubles from €85.
Read our full destination guide to l’Isle de Re here.
Le Cap Ferret
Le Cap Ferret is the chic seaside fishing village at the end of the peninsula that forms the northern edge of le bassin d’Arcachon (Arcachon Bay, a name long synonymous with top oysters in France). In fact, Le Cap Ferret is responsible for a significant portion of French oyster production and the fact it doubles as a working fishing village and chic seaside resort only adds to its charms.
The nutritious waters of the Bassin d’Arcachon lends the oysters here an exceptional saltiness and a real taste of the sea. Many of the farmers send their oysters to mature over three months in the nutrient-rich waters of the Medoc region (100 kilometres north), resulting in an extra fleshy unique tasting mollusc.
If you’re looking to eat straight from the farm, head directly to the village pecheur at the base of Le Cap Ferret’s imposing lighthouse. Here, you’ll find bay-side terraces adjoining wooden oyster shacks (cabanes de huitres), which host smart little oyster bars with a wide variety of oysters, carefully selected wines, and limited menus of accompanying seafood and snacks.
If you’re considering staying in town and extending your oyster-eating possibilities, look no further than the Hotel Restaurant, La Maison Du Bassin. Tucked away behind the hustle of the oyster shacks lays this utterly charming wood-clad boutique hotel. The overall vibe is one of casual elegance (service is relaxed and amenities basic, but rooms are spacious and comfortable) and the downstairs bar and restaurant are top picks for dinner and drinks on the Cap.
Read our full destination guide to Le Cap Ferret here.