French Connection

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For most Americans, the Normandy beachheads evoke images of courage, carnage and sacrifice. Ironically, to the French, these beaches are now associated with some of their finest oysters. The huge 45-foot tidal variation that bedeviled General Eisenhower provides the modern French oyster farmer with easy, albeit risky, access to his crop.

During the height of this year’s endless winter, my family and I visited the Danlos family, Norman oyster farmers whose children had toured our Greenport farm several years ago. The French are the kings of oyster eating, consuming 25 times the oysters we Americans do. Their entire Atlantic shoreline cultivates oysters. Tractors, barges and boats jam the oyster beds every morning and evening. Oddly, the Peconic was similarly farmed 75 years ago, but the industry faded. Oyster consumption in this country plummeted in the early ’60s, just as McDonald’s and the burger skyrocketed.

We flew into Paris, rented a Renault and drove to the small village of Blainville-sur-Mer, detouring en route to the disembarkation beachheads. Omaha Beach, where the greatest loss of life occurred, is preserved as a war memorial, but Sword, Juno, Utah and Gold beaches are planted in oysters throughout the mile-wide intertidal zone. We arrived at sunset to see the lights around the gravestones glow like candles at High Mass. A cold winter rain fell as we drove on to Blainville, guided through the hedgerows and little village roundabouts by a chipper British voice on the GPS.

Dinner was waiting at the centuries-old home of François and Marie Danlos. A tomato soup with Norman cream warmed us up as Francois and his 24-year-old son, Pierre, grilled thick pork chops on the open hearth in the kitchen. Norman cheeses and sausages, breads and vegetables, bottles of Bordeaux wines, tarts, brandies and chocolates filled our hungry stomachs. Amandine, their 30-something daughter, had taken the TGV from Paris to translate. Halfway through the after-dinner drinks, patriarch Francois announced that at two in the afternoon, we would depart for the oysters. The Americans, he decreed, needed sleep to recover from our long flight and drive.

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My teenagers slept late, and my wife, Isabel, and I arose to the sound of waves advancing along the nearby shore. The village church called the dwindling faithful to Mass. By the time we dressed, the patisserie had opened and the Romanesque church, set in the midst of an ancient village cemetery, was empty. We noted the Danlos family plot hard up against the front door. “Danlos, our name,” Amandine had told me at dinner, “means ‘by the water.’” A millennium of ocean mist had taken its toll on the church’s paint and wood. We ambled among the few streets. The homes were all a gray stone, accented with bright-blue shutters. Seaweed mulched the backyard gardens. Over the slate roofs, we caught glimpses of the English Channel and heard the still advancing tide.

At one o’clock, we arrived at the barn, where Pierre gave us a tour of their sorting machines, washing tables, tractors and depuration tanks. Several wild belon oysters, Ostrea edulis, the “true” oyster, had grown among their bags of Asian oysters, the Ostrea giga, or “giant” oysters. Gigas are the most heavily cultivated animal in the world, due to their resistance to diseases that can plague oysters. In New York, we grow the Crassostrea virginica, the “left-handed” Virginia oyster. We enjoyed a few of the wild belons along with the farmed gigas, then mounted the flatbed trailer that Pierre towed behind the tractor. He and his dad were working the Sunday ebb tide so their two employees would have tasks to do when they arrived Monday at 8 a.m.

Wending past a medieval laundry and fields of Norman cows, we crossed the beach road and joined the column of oyster tractors crawling down the big concrete ramps to the exposed intertidal flats. We were two hours before the low tide, giving us four hours to work. As far as the eye could see, racks of rebar “tables” topped with bagged oysters carpeted the exposed sea floor. In eight hours, at high tide, these oysters would be under 35 feet of water.

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In 1972, Francois Danlos pioneered this method of cultivating oysters in Normandy, his wife working alongside him in surplus U.S. Army trucks. Once, the pull-start truck would not turn over, and the advancing tide engulfed them up to their waists. Finally, one last yank started the truck. Marie Danlos has not been out to the oyster beds since, terrified of being swallowed by the infamous Norman tide. I could not keep my eyes off the ebbing water. Pierre showed my 14-year-old son, Mercator, how to engage the tractor’s gears, then he jumped into the calf-deep water and began stacking bags of oysters on the flatbed. My daughter, Susanna, and I, suited in the French version of Grundens, joined him. Isabel and Amandine took photos.

The rebar tables are spaced in groups of four rows, wide enough for a tractor to travel between the second and third rows. Pierre, younger-stronger-faster, tossed oysters from the outer rows to the inner rows, then we hauled those onto the flatbed, stacking them carefully high above our heads so they did not slide off on the drive home. All the time, my eyes glanced incessantly at the tide to ensure it was still ebbing. As the flatbed filled up, Francois drove up with a second tractor-trailer rig.

“And now we must get in the water,” Amandine told Isabel. “Moi?” she questioned the young Norman woman. “Oh yes.” Amandine had forsaken the oyster farm for a media job in the big city. Years ago, her Parisian friends had pitied her hardworking childhood, but now, as in the U.S., oyster farming has acquired a cachet, and she is proud of her background.

We all continued to heave bags of oysters from the tables to the flatbed, Pierre ordering my son to drive forward and stop at the next table. Four years shy of a driver’s license, Mercator was thrilled. Off to the west, the English Channel swelled around the Isle of Jersey. William the Conqueror’s château was 20 miles inland. The tide slacked and turned. The seven of us, three women and four men, continued to load the trailers with oysters. Finally, Francois gave the order to retreat. I was relieved. We were two miles from the high tide line, the steeple of St. Pierre’s in Blainville a tiny nub on the horizon.

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On the inbound crawl, Francois stopped his tractor to show us bags of nine-month-old seed. All of our faces grimaced at the devastation wrought by a virus that has attacked the European oysters: 60 to 80 percent of their juvenile oysters die. He summoned Pierre and walked him away from us. Amandine informed us they were arguing about Pierre’s installation of new tables. A storm had blown in a week ago wrecking several rows, and Francois felt Pierre was partially at fault. I hoped they would settle the matter quickly as I felt the incoming flood sweeping at my waterproof boots. Marie’s decision to forsake the intertidal zone was becoming wiser by the second. Then, for a moment, I thought of those young American soldiers, just a few years older than my teens, who gave their lives for us and the French; the water killed more GI’s than German fire. Father and son returned shortly, tomorrow they would repair the tables. I sensed that Francois needed to pass on each iota of insight before his back gave out and he joined Marie full-time back at the warm hearth.

All oyster farmers are constantly sorting and cleaning their animals. The Normans can use tractors instead of boats, so are at a functional advantage. I did notice, however, that Francois and Pierre kept their tractors idling. Gillardeau, the largest vendor of oysters in France with a lock on the Paris bistros, grows half of their oysters nearby on the former Utah beachhead. The Danlos family sells some market-size oysters locally and ships the rest to the major cities. All across the Norman beaches, where brave young GI’s stormed ashore, are shops for degustation, or tasting, where one can buy and sample the local oysters. As an oyster farmer myself, I can think of no more fitting tribute to the valiant dead than to grow food for the living.

Winter’s weak sun was setting as we returned to the barn, our tractors towing about six tons of oysters. Most of those would be sorted, graded and returned to the sea within three days. The Danlos’s farm sells about 250 tons of oysters annually, enough to support a family of five plus two workers and their families. Marie invited us for dinner. Having made reservations in Brittany, we had to say goodbye, exchanging bottles of bourbon for Cognac, T-shirts for chocolates, kisses and photos. Impressed by my daughter’s work ethic, Francois invited her to come this summer to learn French while working on the oysters. We offered to arrange a tour of American oyster farms for him.