For most French people, oysters are a staple of the Christmas season. They thrive in chilly weather, so the holidays are an ideal time to harvest them. I have been told that a “true” oyster lover enjoys them without adornment, but my preference is to douse them with a spoonful of mignonette and a generous spritz of lemon. My mother-in-law buys them as fresh as can be from her favorite vendor at the market. Then, it is my fiancé’s job to shuck the lot.
The department of Charente-maritime—encompassing Angoulins-sur-Mer, the city of La Rochelle, and the neighboring islands Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron—are famous for their oyster and mussel production. Fishermen rely on the tides, which ebb and flow dramatically across day and night.
The beach at Angoulins—the Frenchman’s village—is famous for its elevated, wooden fishing cabins called carrelet, named so for the square (carré) fishing nets that hang from each cabin. Anyone may rent one for the day to fish for crabs, shrimp, or little fish.
The region is also lauded for other shellfish like langoustines, shrimp, and many types of fish besides the oysters, themselves. The Frenchman is crazy for crevette grise—tiny, brackish little things, often eaten whole on buttered bread. We take advantage while visiting Angoulins, as they are impossible to find in the States.
On sunny winter days, we walk to the port to sit outside on restaurant terraces. We might share a plate of oysters at the start of a meal, accompanied by glasses of mineral white wine, rye bread, and generous swipes of unsalted butter.