Sunday, 6 July 2008

French oysters - the vision of Victor Coste

The effects of overfishing were more immediate and earlier than in Britain, but where in England the crisis was met by helpless chaos, the French responded vigorously.

The oyster beds were regarded as a precious national asset. And their laws were different. Where the freedom of the individual that the barons had laid down in the Magna Carta had somehow managed to impose itself by association on the creeks and estuaries in England, the French had no such qualms. Francis 1 in 1544 and then Henri III in 1584 asserted the royal prerogative to own and farm the oyster beds in the national interest and had even dismantled private fishing which is why, in the Cancale example, it was the Admiralty that was called in to look at the state of the beds when the harvests started to decline. In the Gallic presumption, the state owned the bounty of the shorelines and would administer them as it saw fit. For the oyster that meant for the benefit of the people, just as Colne in Essex had also supposed.

In 1840 the navy also had to be called in to patrol the beds around Arcachon to protect the oysters from poachers, but it was already too late.

The French were spurred into collective action. The brilliant embryologist Victor Coste, or to give him his full name Jean Jaques Marie Cyprien Victor Coste had seen the cultivation techniques still being used in the Bay of Naples at Lago Fusaro from the Roman times. It had been revived 100 years before when King Ferdinand IV of Bourbon introduced a park for mussels and then oysters "that were gathered from the pots, reeds, faggots, palisades and from the bottom of the Lake”. That was 1764.

The enthusiastic Coste asked Napoleon III for 8,000 francs to restock the Bay of St Brieuc, west of St Malo. He would import oysters into the bay; pay for a boat to guard them, and then following the Italian example he would lay up stones, faggots and other collectors, so that when the oysters spawned, the young would have something on which to attach themselves; and the fishermen would also have something on which to attach their attentions. A year later in 1859, an elated Coste reported to Napoleon that the experiment had been a magnificent success. As evidence he quoted one single faggot carrying more than 20,000 spat. He recommended all French coastline and even the colonies of Corsica and Algeria follow his lead, except where the shoreline was too muddy. Napoleon, enterprisingly, acceded.

There was a second breakthrough at about the same time, this one credited to a stonemanson called M. Bouef at the Ile de Re, near La Rochelle. Not being a confidante of Napoleon, his first name, or names, has been lost but his contribution might be seen to have been as important. He noticed that in muddy waters, oysters would cling to stone sea walls. He reclaimed low tidal muddy flats by building small stone walls into small parks and laying the bottom with stones. This worked too. No longer dependent on the vagaries of the wild, the French realised they could bring in oysters from around Europe as spat and grow them on in their beds and specially created parks. Soon they were importing so much that they had depleted nearly all the seed stock from Spain: 20 million oysters harvested in 1860 became 350 million by 1907.

This approach was used for the nation’s most famous oyster, the Belon. Again it was Coste who had the vision. The Belon comes from the Aven-Belon river, although the name is not so historic as it likes to claim and is often misused. This is not a nursery or even a growing area, but the plankton rich waters are where oysters are taken to be finished before going to market, and will be at least three years old, some just get a quick bath and then back into the lorry, where others (speciales) are left for months.

Coste takes the credit for seeing that the richness of iron and the mix of sea and clear waters here would make Belon an ideal environment for oyster culture and persuaded one August Constant Solminihac to move his family from the Perigourd to plant the region in 1864, taking his first spat from Belgium. Later Coste was to revive the bays at Toulon and Brest with oysters imported from England. Solminihac, perceptively saw there was no need to be a grower at all when the oysters could be spawned and grown elsewhere, but could then be fattened up to effect and marketed from his river waters. His family still trade as Huitres du Chateau Belon. Four other companies now operate the concessions Thaƫron, Cadoret, Noblet, and Thieblemont and seek to enforce strict labelling and control of the name by registering stocks and recording how long they have been kept in the Belon waters.

Coste’s bureaucracy however was intense. Inspections followed the Cancale model. Summer fishing was still banned. Concessions were awarded to naval conscripts. National service had been introduced as an alternative to press ganging, and an oyster concession became one of the pensions to the job. Often these were generous stipends with grants being awarded to retired sailors in terms of free spat, free stock, free tiles and other essentials for a would be oysterman. From Napoleon’s point of view it was a deliberate exercise in social engineering. He wanted oysters to feed the poor and he wanted profitable work for his former sailors.

In fairness Coste’s approach was not an immediate success, but it did revive both the Quiberon and the Arcachon, the latter only after decades of the strictest enforcement policies where in some years fishing was only allowed by hand for one hour a year which did not stop as many as 5,000 gatherers turning up for that single hour. But in the year of Coste’s death 1877, these beds suddenly revived dramatically. In 1880, 195 million oysters were taken. The number of concessions to ex-sailors rose from 483 to 4,239.