An Irishman who's never had an oyster faces his fears in a setting of bright long beaches and 19th-century winter retreats
Arcachon is located south-west of Bordeaux on the coast and at the mouth of the Bassin d’Arcachon. If you’re coming to France by ferry, it’s quite a drive all the way down there, but for many Irish people who’ve discovered this fascinating seaside town, it’s a journey that’s well worth making. It has many elements of what holidaymakers look for – it is pretty, it has a laid-back feel about it (a bit like Youghal only warmer, bigger and better) it has a really fine beach and it’s within striking distance of lots and lots more beach that includes the tallest dune in all of Europe (Dune du Pilat).
But Arcachon has more still. It really took off as a destination in the latter part of the 19th century and it became one of the fashionable places for the glitterati of Parisian society to cool their heels in the summer time. They also started to come to Arcachon during the winter in search of the mild climate and they were joined in their appreciation of the town by the wealthy elite from all over Europe. The little fishing village expanded and a series of fabulous villas were constructed so as to match the fabulously wealthy winter-time visitors to Arcachon. Soon, they had their own upmarket ghetto which centred around a park upon which a huge casino was built.The casino, which was the social centre of what became known as the Ville d’Hiver (Winter Town) is long gone (burnt down) but you can still visit the lovely park on which it sat and you can do a great walking tour of the Ville d’Hiver by getting a map and a set of headphones from the helpful tourist office. It really is an hour or so well spent, walking between the shady, leafy neighbourhood, admiring the unique architecture and imagining what life must have been like for the upper-echelon of Euro-trash a hundred years ago.
But the beach and the coastline are really where it’s at. And it was the burgeoning tourist industry that led to the area’s even bigger money-spinner – oysters. Back in the day (i.e. the mid-19th century and earlier), the Arcachon Basin consisted of a series of fishing villages, from where brave fishermen headed out at high tide, braved the treacherous crossing into deep water (for this, they needed and experienced guide at the bow of the leading boat who would decide the moment to go for it) and went in search of fish.
Many Bretons came down to this part of France to join in the hunt. But a disaster in the middle of the 19th century that wiped out many of the area’s best fishermen forced a re-think, both in the design of boats and in what they went looking for. Meanwhile, tourists from Arcachon began to discover the pleasure of heading out around the basin and buying fresh oysters from the local fishermen. The result was something of a gold rush and today, all the “fishing” is done within the relatively safe confines of the Basin (which is a huge sea of wet sand when the tide goes out) and it is France’s principal spot for oyster production.We went on one of the excursions to the oyster ports of La Teste-de-Buch. In a mini-bus full of curious tourists all issued with sun-hats, we set out to see the oyster-growing for ourselves. The ports have a particular character that is very special, with their timber houses (by law, they must be of timber construction in the tidal areas) and port-side restaurants. There is a visitor centre telling you the story of the oysters and how labour-intensive it is. We were then taken to a port-side restaurant to taste some of the produce fresh from the sea.
There were five of us there and none of us had ever eaten oysters before. This provoked some surprise amongst the tour guide. Ireland is known as a major European centre of oyster production and the assumption had seemingly been that all Irish folk must love the live bivalve. So we were determined not to let the side down and eat at least one oyster each. I was dreading it a little, I’d have to admit, but it was in my favour that it happened to be lunch time (hunger is the best sauce) and that there was a nice glass of white wine going with the deal (no-one makes wine like the French do).“How do you get it off the shell?” I asked the waitress. She showed me the bit of the oyster with which it makes its last-gasp attempt to cling onto life and to its own personal shell and how you must use the knife provided to un-stick it so that it can then be tipped into your mouth. I squeezed some lemon juice onto the creature, simultaneously nodding my head as she spoke. The oyster winced. It didn’t like lemon juice at all. I winced too. Bracing movements issued from my stomach.
“Do you chew?” I asked, with all the confidence of a man standing by the guillotine with his hands tied behind his back. “A little… yes.” She smiled and left. She had more things to be doing than to be dealing with the stupid questions of a woos of an Irishman. I took some wine and tipped the bugger into my mouth. One thing that I had been warned about when eating oysters is the salt water that can tend to make you feel like throwing up. I bravely steeled myself for the feeling of nausea. It never came. Pleasant sensation. I bit gently into it. Like a soft wobbly thing – hard to describe, but I could see what they meant when they talk about it being an aphrodisiac. I swallowed. Not bad. Three oysters later, I was a fan. I cleaned up a few more that had been rejected by other family members.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing on the beach watching the boats sail past and with the satisfying feeling of the fruits of the sea digesting slowly and naturally in my stomach. I could see the multiple pleasures of Arcachon and why it has worked so well as a tourist destination for 150 years. The children were amusing themselves in the sea. I turned to my wife and said:
“I think we shall take a villa next winter. What do you think?”
Get Yourself There
Aer Lingus operates a direct link from Dublin to Bordeaux twice a week, increasing to four times a week in summer.
Brittany Ferries run a weekly service from April to the end of October