The Racinne family, oyster farmers for a hundred generations.
With an amazing texture, salty and iodinated, raw or cooked but always fresh, the oysters of Cancale are the Marmite of the sea - loved or hated, but always with passion! I went off to find out more about the dedication of the local producers these shells hide, like a pearl. The Racinne family are the archetypal oyster farmers in Cancale.
An 8 am start, heading off for Cancale on a couple of pieces of toast. I have an appointment with Bernard and Christine Racinne on their family farm.
On the road, the weather is really dreadful - the kind of blustering wash only the Atlantic coast can muster. Wind squalls make my car dance alarmingly and the temperature outside isn't quite six degrees yet. Arriving in Cancale, I see the sea bleached by the wind, and wonder what it must be like to deal with this every day. My arrival at the farm seems to give everyone a good excuse for a break from the weather and the whole team comes in to welcome me, lots of ruddy-cheeked smiles and hearty handshakes. Over a coffee I'm told, to my relief, but at the same time making me wonder what I'll write about, that we won't be going out to sea, it being a bit too rough today. Frankly I'm not sure if my stomach would have stood up to the tossing waves - we'll see about that in another article for the summer edition! The chance to talk rather than see with my own eyes turns out to be very much more evocative and interesting than I had any right to expect. Bertrand, I learn, began his career on the oyster beds at just 16. He is magnetized by his everyday environment, and has transmitted his passion and knowledge to his two daughters,always ready to give him a hand!
At 10 am I get to taste my first Cancale oyster - "not too early?" I ask - well, of course not, and the iodine hit is totally amazing. The cold and wind suddenly seem bracing and immediately pertinent!
Pulling on my wax jacket and my boots, I get to see the packing operations. It's Wednesday, deliveries day for Maison Racinne. It delivers to about twenty stores in the region between Rennes to Dol de Bretagne. Bertrand tells me that he sells 110 to 120 tons on average per year. Sales are split between Cancale (tasting and local restaurants), the restaurant business in the wider area, fishmongers and local supermarkets.
Everything gets done in good humour with a smile and in the family. Bertrand and Christine's daughters are at college today, learning more about the maritime environment and business to enhance their knowledge for the day they take over.
Bertrand checks the quality and gustatory characteristics of what he called "the fish" (the animal inside the oyster) every day, giving each catch a grade. Young oysters begin growing in bags which are turned-over regularly. They are moved to the oyster beds, and after 3-4 years they obtain a well-rounded shell and even shape, with "a dense and firm flesh, which is a guarantee of quality." I agree!
Here are the few tips from Bertrand to choose your next oysters.
"A living oyster must have a pleasant smell, it must be heavy in the hand (since it is full of water). If you have a doubt about the freshness, pierce the edge of the oyster shell with the tip of a knife: a living oyster will immediately retract"
I can't say how much I enjoyed meeting this family of oyster farmers, and appreciated their knowledge of how to craft an exceptional product. The Racinnes are proud of their profession, living with the sea, with nature, and sharing their values to the young people coming into the trade. I'll definitely be coming back this summer for a trip out to sea with them!