Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cap Ferret & Oyster Tasting - Appreciating the Basin d'Arcachon

 Cap Ferret & Arcachon

Looking back onto the town of Arcachon as we head toward Cap Ferret
As I said in one of my earlier posts - I have started a new job as a tour guide. It's definitely a change of pace and brand new - but loads of fun!  In the tourism industry - one has to also be prepared for the unexpected and be willing to adjust to quick changes.  Luckily, I'm the type of person who is fine going with the flow.  It's wonderful working with this group, as part of our training we follow around  more experienced guides - so we can see expectations and exactly how the tour will flow, before we do it on our own.

So this past Friday, I had the luxury of tagging along with another guide to learn the Arcachon/Cap Ferret excursion.  It was this reason that I was able to snap a few photos and be able to share this great experience.   I know when I do the tour myself - I will not have any time to be a photographer.    But wait until you see what was done in one day - just 45 minutes from Bordeaux! (Please pardon the quality of some of these photos - all of them were taken with my phone, not my favorite SLR camera.)

We left Bordeaux with a group of about 30 tourists and headed to the town of Arcachon by bus.  We did a very quick drive around parts of the town and then arrived at the dock and boarded a small chartered boat to head across the Basin.  The captain pointed out some of the islands and talked about the tide, the history and how on the far Eastern side of the Bassin the tide goes out so fast, it all becomes mud!  There are several islands with fishing cabins, along with the famous Bird Island or Isle d'Oiseaux.

It's about an hour across the basin to Cap Ferret  - the long peninsula on the other side. We arrived at a wonderful little fishing village called L'Herbe. This picturesque village truly takes you back in time.  It grew due to the fishing and oyster harvesting that is a primary occupation of many of it's residents.  Many shacks along the shore-line are Oyster farmers who have to tend their plots in the sand.  This is a year round business here and one that takes much hard work.

Exiting the boat!

We docked during high tide and exited the boat on the side of the stairs.  The picture below is a photo of arriving into the village.

Village of L'Herbe & Canon

Looking down the street

This village is very quaint and one feels like they stepped back in time.  Oyster harvesting has been going on here for centuries.

The shoreline & the Oyster boats

Many of the businesses have tastings available for tourists.  We went to Chez Yannik - He was all set up for the arrival of our guests.  He explained how he farms Oysters - the different kinds and ages..and then of course - how to eat them!!  Just for some interesting facts - The Bassin d'Arcachon is about 15,000 hectares in size (37,000 Acres) and about 1,000 hectares (2500 Acres) are licensed to be Oyster farms.  These farms have an annual production of about 22,000 pounds of Oysters.  Arcachon Bay was the first European Breeding center.  Approximately 60% of Oysters sold in France come from the basin, although they are not generally bought by supermarkets as the producers are not large-scale enough to supply them.

There are about 350 Oyster farmers in the Arcachon Basin and their production is about a third the size of production from up North in Brittany.  Arcachon is limited in the number of producers as it's an enclosed bay.

Oysters are best served with lemon and some bread & butter

Did you ever wonder how Oysters are cultivated?  Here's a short version:  

When Oyster larvae are born, they float around in the sea, looking for a rough surface to attach to.  Every July, the oyster farmers submerge terracotta tiles painted with lime (or plastic replicas) and wait for the larvae to cling to them. This practice has been employed in the Arcachon area since 1904 and it means that all the oysters from Arcachon start off wild.  Once the Oysters are big enough, the oyster farmer (Ostreiculter- in French) scrapes them off the tiles and places them in nets - that look something like a rope-mesh pillow case.  These nets are not filled as the Oysters need plenty of room to grow.

These cases are then placed on racks and left for over 2 years to grow.  Oysters are about 3 years old by the time they are eaten.  Arcachon oysters take longer to grow due to the tidal variations.  When the oysters are ready to be sold, they are graded by size and placed in oxygenated storage tanks.  

Delicious Raw Oysters
Ever wonder why or how one can find pearls in Oysters?  A pearl is a result of a foreign body introduced into the tissue of the oyster.  The reaction of the mollusk is to produce a layer of calcium carbonate in the form of calcite or more commonly called "nacre".  The shell continues to successively coat this layer of nacre and eventually the "intruder" will become the center of the future pearl.  Naturally, this process is pretty rare - one would need to consume about 10,000 oysters to find a gem!!

The rinsing tank & of course you drink white wine with Oysters!

Loved the informal but lovely deck at our tasting

Demonstration of how to open an Oyster - much harder than it looks!
After everyone enjoyed their share of raw Oysters, we climbed back into the boat and cruised along the shoreline and headed to Lege Cap Ferret.
In a couple months they houses will be bustling with activity

Arriving in Lege - inside the enclosure are Oysters growing...hard to see in high tide.

It is a very picturesque ride. We landed the boat and dined at L'Escale Brasserie - in Lege, situated on the water.  We enjoyed the view of the Dune du Pyla in the background and the Oyster farms along the shore.  The restaurant is known for it's FRESH seafood and it didn't disappoint.  The Fried Calamari for an entree and then the Cabaillaud (Cod) for the main dish - superb!!  I will definitely return here.Leg

Our view at lunch - Plus - Oyster nets more visible as the tide went out

As the tide went out, it was very interesting to see all the Oyster racks and nets.

Definitely looks like pillow cases all lined up in rows!..Oysters growing
After everyone was stuffed full of delicious seafood and had taken in the beautiful seaside view, we headed back across the basin and cruised along in front of the town of Arcachon.  Beautiful sight!  The day was PERFECT!!  Partly sunny, a nice breeze and by afternoon, warm enough to sit on the back of the boat and enjoy the fresh salt air.  
Arcachon  - View from the Basin

Now this excursion was created and organized for the tourists on this River Cruise ship.  However, There are Oyster tastings (degustations) given by many, many different harvesters in Cap Ferret, Arcachon, & Gujan Mestras which are open to the public.  There are also many boats that ferry people across the bay to allow visitors easy access to Cap Ferret - many allow bicycles too - making it a great way to further explore the peninsula. This is certainly a great way to learn more about this area and it's very special industry.  

Hope you enjoyed learning about Oysters.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bordeaux - Fete le Chocolat! - Delicious & Fun!

It's that time of year again - Bordeaux Fete le Chocolat!!

This was the 2nd annual event and it was just as fun and interesting as last year! This year it was held at the Jardin Botanique in the Bastide section of Bordeaux.  This free event was again a mixture of Chocolate merchants - expert Chocolatiers - selling their wonderful and decadent creations, demonstrations in Chocolate decorating, Children's workshops, tastings and of course, A Chocolate Sculpture Contest in the theme of Aviation.

Unlike last year where the Sculpture exhibit and the Chocolate merchants were in separate buildings - this year they shared the space inside the exhibition area of the Jardin Botanique and all visitors also got to tour the greenhouse exhibits inside the building.  This exhibit was additionally tailored to understanding how the cocoa bean is grown, harvested & eventually made into chocolate.  This was a fun addition to the festival!
My middle daughter & friend wandering through the greenhouse part of the Jardin Botanique
Nice addition this year - to understand more about chocolate and how it's made!
Enjoying the plants
The creations this year were just as interesting as last year - Very unique and fun!!  Loved the different takes on the theme!
Loved this Hot Air Balloon
Very creative!
Everyone had their own interpretation
This one was definitely colorful and very interesting!
I asked my youngest daughter which one was her favorite - Hands down - she ran over to this one!  I think it's ironic that this young American/French girl liked the one that represented the first transatlantic flight between Paris & New York in 1927!  

The different vendors were excellent about explaining their creations and handed out many samples for visitors to try.  It was also neat to watch the chocolate demonstrations.  There were even workshops for the kids to learn about decorating with chocolate and molding their own creations.  Unfortunately, the slots were all reserved for this particular afternoon, so my kids just enjoyed watching and sampling instead.  I definitely recommend this event for the whole family and if you have kids - go early and sign up - they will have a blast!!
Molding eggs together
Dark chocolate drizzled over strawberries & bananas!  Yummy!
The Chocolate fountain with fruit was a big hit with many visitors.  For 1.50 euros - delicious & inexpensive!! This event was held this whole weekend Thursday through Sunday.  We, unfortunately, went at peak hours on Saturday afternoon - you can see here - there was a line to enter the exhibit.  So I recommend going in the mornings, unless you don't mind waiting.  For us - we waited about 45 minutes to enter the exhibit - but truthfully - we enjoyed every minute of it!!  Even the kids, despite the wait enjoyed all the tastings and the greenhouse exhibit inside!  It seemed like it was so successful this year, that they might need to look for an even bigger location next year! We will definitely be returning  - it was a delightful way to spend a Saturday afternoon!  Thank you - Fete Le Chocolat!!
At Le Jardin Botanique - waiting to enter Fete Le Chocolat!

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