Oléron Oyster Route

The island of Oléron is known to produce arguably the best oysters in France – and that is some claim!

In the area surrounding the island and along the nearby coast between 45,000 and 60,000 tonnes of oysters are produced annually.

Just beyond Boyardville on the eastern tip of the island signs indicate the ‘Route des huîtres’ , the oyster route.

The road leads you to a picturesque area of reclaimed salt marsh where colourful shacks of the oyster farmers punctuate the landscape.

Île d’Oléron oyster route beached boat

The hand dug oyster channels vary in width. They are tidally washed – for it is here that the sea meets the fresh water created by the network of channels.

The work of keeping the channels operating is an art in itself and takes a great deal of manual labour.

Here the banks are braced with locally cut wooden stays.

Île d’Oléron oyster route braced channel

The Oléron oyster shacks were suffering the same fate as much rural infrastructure as young people choose other directions than the hard manual labour of their fathers.

The shacks beside unworked channels were starting to fall into disrepair so island government created an artists project to rehabilitate them – turning some into artists studios.

Île d’Oléron oyster shack by unworked channel

Having peeped into the windows of one…

Île d’Oléron oyster shack interior

…it certainly was one artistic oyster farming family that decorated it!

Île d’Oléron inside of oyster shack

Those painting the shacks, or even painting within the shacks, were not the only artists in the area, for I passed this bit of artistic humour on a pathway between the channels.

Someone had carved a face into the tree stump, where it squinted towards the land like a seaman peering through the fog.

Île d’Oléron carved stump amongst oyster shacks

The newly roofed shacks are colourful.

Île d’Oléron colourful oyster shacks

Some retain original irregular rooflines.

Île d’Oléron painted oyster houses

None were occupied when I was there - unless you count external residents - these snails forming curly embellishments to the coloured lines.

Île d’Oléron oyster house residents

These colourful huts make a varied backdrop to the work of active oyster channels

Île d’Oléron oyster shacks beside channel

…where the flat bottomed boats rest between the tides.

Île d’Oléron flat-bottomed oyster boat

The working channels of Oléron reveal activity driven by the tides, with traditional fishing boats travelling on the higher tide and the flat bottomed boats taking advantage of the low tide – possibly to collect the smaller shellfish, cockles, and the like.

Île d’Oléron oyster boats

I headed out along a clay track and then on the rickety boardwalks beside the channels, and then both disappeared before I reached my destination.

Île d’Oléron oyster channel or claire

Dropping to the clay bank just above the waterline meant picking my way carefully, and peering intot he mud, I saw that I had company.

A well camouflaged mud crab scuttled away, probably thankful that I was a hunter of pictures and not of seafood.

Île d’Oléron mud crab

Further along the oyster trail, I came upon the stored working apparatus of the channels:  here were banks of neatly stacked metal stakes for the beds, and further along, layers of the wire mesh sacks in which the shells would be stored.

Île d’Oléron oyster stakes and mesh sacks

Not only oysters are gathered from the ocean bed to be seasoned by being washed in the nutrient-rich brine of the channels, or water pens. Cockles, clams and oysters are also stored in the wire sacks and all are turned regularly during the seasoning process.

Each portion of land has a slightly different quality to its water according to the depth, the currents and the temperature of the water. This affects flavour and is what those with cultivated palates can discern in the oyster markets of Oléron.

Île d’Oléron oyster stakes being loaded

When filled, these mesh sacks must take some turning.

Île d’Oléron piles of mesh sacks

The process starts in the parcels of marine rights on which the oyster beds sit at sea in the shallows around the coast of Oléron. 

When the contents are considered to be at a stage of being “fines”, they are lean and salty. At this stage they are brought to the salt marshes to be fattened o na nutrient rich mix of channel water in the water pens or claires.

Île d’Oléron fines in the claires

Not all claires are at this end of the island, some being in other salt marshes dotted along on the winding road that runs down the centre Oléron.

There are many bridges that make great viewing platforms.

Île d’Oléron oyster route channel

I stopped at one to have a look and spent a while watching a fish of some considerable size swooping into the shallows – apparently to devour unsuspecting prey for he was drawn back and back to the same spot and left with a decided flick of his tail.

You can see him at the bottom left of the photo.

Île d’Oléron large fish in claire

The claires have been dug by the various fishermen and beside many are small Farm-door shops selling the products to take away, or to savour on the spot.

Further up the island the channels are quite wide in places and although here the water looks quite blue, the seaweed Haslea Ostrearia in the water turns both water and oysters to green.

Île d’Oléron wide oyster channel

The salt marsh channels extend to Ors…

Île d’Oléron Ors oyster channel

Here the Oléron oyster farmers live in a dense channel-side community close to the tip of the islan

Île d’Oléron Ors oyster village

I spent some time wandering the salt marsh water pens of Oléron and looking at the simple fishing shacks.

During the whole time on this lovely island I kept thinking of the saying of Confucius:

Life is really simple

but we insist on making it complicated

Back to Main Page