Sunday, 6 July 2008

Miracle of the Morlaisen

The French
also had one miraculous slice of luck in this revival. Small numbers of the Portugese oyster (crassostrea angulata) had been transplanted successfully from the river Tagus, which had been known as a rich source of oysters and other fish from Roman times. Then in 1868 The Morlaisen, carrying Portugese oysters from Setubal bound for England hit a tempest off Arcachon and sought shelter off Bordeaux. The oysters started to smell and the captain Patoizeau ordered them to be dumped near Verdon at the very tip of the Pointe du M├ędoc. Far from being dead, the oysters took to the waters immediately and flourished. Within a few years the whole Gironde was once again thriving as an oyster centre.

There is some argument over the precise numbers but by 1910, where England was in serious decline the harvest was around 25 million oysters, compared to the revived French beds at 500 million.

Through the 20th century the French faced their share of crisis but with the almost military resources at their disposal the industry managed to stay buoyant.

Even after the abandonment of conscription and national service in 1983, they maintained the deeply Gallic and Napoleonic philosophy of only awarding concessions to new oyster beds on strict criteria which included how many children an applicant might have under 16; how many years in the navy or at sea and, more recently, demanding educational diplomas for which there is now a three year degree course.

Their ingenuity and decisiveness has been needed to combat new threats apart from overfishing.

As in England, the native oysters were badly hit by the Black Death of the 1920s and then more recently martellia in 1974 and bonomia in 1979 and 1984 and are now a fraction of what they used to be. The native round oyster has been decimated. Only five percent of the native flat oyster deposits remain.

The Portugese oyster was ravaged from 1949 by a terminal virus called simply Gill Disease or maladie des branchies and eventually the last link back to the Morlaisen’s cargo succumbed completely in the 1970s.

The French took a draconian and audacious decision to import the Japanese oyster (crassostrea gigas) directly from Japan and second generation cultures from British Columbia, in Canada. Now 98% of French oysters are what used to be called Pacifics. Even the Belon will not always be a flat round native oysters, though it may be, but the Pacific fattened in the Brittany waters.

The science though came from the new world.