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Operation oyster

They could be French, Portuguese or even Japanese but as the Algarve Resident discovers, some of Europe’s best quality oysters are being quietly cultivated in Sagres.

By Patrick Stuart [email protected]

Whilst enjoying a delicious raw oyster, few of us give any thoughts to its origin. It is after all the essence of freshness, still alive in its shell until prized open for our gustatorial pleasure.

What might come as a surprise to the gourmands of France is that some of the best quality oysters are (sacré blue!) cultivated here in Portugal. Some consolation may come from learning that the company producing them is French owned and, of equal importance, run by an oyster-loving Frenchman.

Jean Jacques Guignard is a 45-year-old biology graduate and ex-navy diver who took over as manager of Sagres-based company Ostra Cultura in 2001. The operation was initially set up in 1996 and today produces some 200 tonnes of prime grade oysters each year for export to France.

Sagres, according to Jean Jacques, offers the perfect conditions for the cultivation of oysters. The flavour, texture and growth rate are affected by both temperature and by the quality of the water in which they are reared, and Sagres offers the optimum balance of both. An oyster that may take as long as four years to reach maturity in France can be grown here in just 18 months, using a totally natural and environmentally sound process.

The 18-hectare oyster farm, around 4km out from Sagres harbour, is one of just a few of its kind in Europe. Most oysters in France, Portugal and elsewhere are cultivated in tidal lagoons. A slower process than offshore cultivation, lagoon cultivation also influences the flavour of the oyster in a different way to the iodine rich water of the open ocean.

The juvenile oysters are imported first from hatcheries in France, and upon arrival in Sagres they are simply placed in small mesh bags and hung from the ropes of an intricate network of buoys secured to the seabed by giant concrete blocks.

During their 18 months in Sagres, the molluscs feed healthily on the nutrient-rich water thus naturally enhancing their growth rate. The only interference from Jean Jacques and his team is the once weekly chore of removing each and every bag from the sea to control the growth of mussels on the outside of the bags. If left untended, mussels will rapidly cover the bags and literally starve the oysters of the nutrients in the water.

Ostra Cultura cultivate both long and flat shell oysters, the former being the most widely available and familiar variety. Talking to Jean Jacques, we learned that Portugal was once a major player in oyster cultivation on an international scale.

A disease in the 1970s, however, almost wiped out the local species being cultivated on the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, Spain and France. Interestingly, the solution came from Japan. Oysters are as much, perhaps even more appreciated in Japan than here in Europe, and the indigenous species, Cras­sostrea Gigas, was identified by French experts as being perfectly suited for cultivation here in Europe. Recognised for its excellent eating quality, the species is also less prone to disease than European varieties, and it was rapidly introduced to oyster nurseries in France and adopted for cultivation around Europe.

This has inevitably led to the species being slowly introduced into the marine ecosystem here, when the farmed oysters ovulate in June and July releasing their eggs into the ocean.

Producers are, however, slowly reintroducing the indigenous species and a small part of the production at Sagres is of the French flat-shelled variety Ostrea edulis. Selling at roughly double the price of the long shelled “Japanese” oyster, they are preferred by some connoisseurs but not by all: Jean Jacques himself prefers the less expensive long shelled variety. We had the chance to sample both, eaten on the boat and still dripping in seawater, and could only conclude that, in either case, they were simply the best oysters we have ever tried. The sad news for oyster lovers here in Portugal is that those farmed in Sagres are not available on the Portuguese market.

After shipping to France by road, the oysters are returned to the water for a final spell in tidal lagoons. This serves no other purpose than to harden the shell and ready them for the market. The mollusc itself is fully mature and probably at its best when plucked straight from the ocean off Sagres.

Good quality oysters are also cultivated in the Ria Formosa lagoon, around Tavira and Fuzeta in the eastern Algarve, but these are no match for open water varieties. This may be why many high-class restaurants serving oysters here in the Algarve state on their menu the French origin of the oysters. Little do they know that they may have been cultivated right here on their doorstep or, for that matter, the variety of oyster they are serving actually originated in Japan.

In this world of globalisation in the food industry, opposed by the growing trend of terroir cuisine, the origins of these well-travelled molluscs are, to say the least, curious. In that sense, the old (English) saying, “The world is your oyster” seems particularly fitting.