When recently visiting the Ile de Ré in Région Poitou-Charentes, I met up with Tony Berthelot, an oyster farmer from Ars-en-Ré who was keen to talk about the high quality of oysters available today on the island. He should know. Together with his wife, Brigitte, whose family have been living on this gem of an island on France’s Atlantic Coast since Louis XIV, he started the business in 1987.
Production of oysters is part of the island’s maritime culture and in the past, farmers would have split their time producing a range of products – oysters, vines, pototoes etc – but his generation, says Tony, is the first to concentrate on just one product. Oyster production actually started on Ile de Ré around 1860 and a visit with Tony includes the history of oyster farming in this part of France. Tales of oyster disease and the introduction of new types of oysters to overcome pestilence is a bit of a roller coaster – who knew about oyster disease? I also discovered that the oysters are carefully tended and aren’t eaten until they are quite large – several years in the growing in Tony’s case in fact.
In the early 2ooo’s, Tony and Brigitte decided to sell direct rather than through third parties and so began their “oyster museum” with Tony retelling passionately the history of oyster farming through the ages. All kinds of strange historic implements he has salvaged bring his story alive and his “act” has been seen by up to 7,000 visitors per annum he says. It’s with a certain regret, that we adjourn to the business side of oyster production.
It’s about the washing – a lot of water is involved – and the grading. We are just 50 m from the ocean and there’s water everywhere. As a family business, will your son take over I ask Tony, spying a recent staff member (below) who seems a little unfocussed and keener on just rolling around on the floor and chasing flies?
No he says, his forté and passions lie elsewhere. I don’t blame him – there’s no regrets – I just want him to be happy. Yes, I think we can all agree, Tony is one cool dude. It was a great pleasure to have met him.
Contributor & Photographer: Sue Lowry
Sue travelled over to the Ile d Ré courtesy of her client, Région Poitou-Charentes. Follow them on social media – twitter @PoitouCharentes.
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