If you visit the west coast of France to the north of La Rochelle, and if you wait for low tide, you will see an unusual sight, thousands of large pieces of wood, piles have been planted in the sea. You could say a forest.
Here, in the Bay of Aiguillon, is the biggest centre in France for the production of mussels.
And if you want to know more about it, take yourself on a visit to the village of Esnandes. There you will find the Home of Mytiliculture and - if you are lucky - the very knowledgeable Nelly, the manager of this museum:
'Mytiliculture' that is the farming of mussels. So, before, we used to call those who were farming the mussels, the 'boucholeurs', but since then many techniques have been modernized, so it is 'Mytiliculture'. So it's the production of mussels, since that comes from the Latin 'mytilus edulis'.
First of all, the mussel farmers cast their nets to capture the baby mussels which collect together in the seam water starting with the secretions emitted by the male and female mussels. The importance of this region for attracting the little mussels comes from the conditions which are perfect.
There are big ropes of hemp or coconut fibre which they cast to capture the spat. To be successful in catching them you must have temperate sea water, and we, since we are protected from cold currents by the Île de Ré, we are absolutely successful.
Then they roll out the lines with all the little mussels just born, on the wooden piles so that they can grow. The real secret is in the phenomenon of the tides. The sea comes in and goes out every six hours.
When the sea is high, the mussels feed, but we must not forget that when the sea is low, the sun is really very important since the sunshine when the pile is uncovered is going to warm the shells, it is going to harden the shells, it is going to make them black-blue and very hard, it is going to warm also the mother of pearl which is on the inside of the shell. It is going to warm, the water too and the mussel itself. It is everything together being warmed that gives the good taste to the farmed mussel.
It is technique from the middle ages. It was the Irish shipwrecked in France who invented this way of growing excellent mussels.
It was an Irishman, Patrice Walton, who was shipwrecked between Esnandes and Charron. He noticed that on the piles which were holding the big nets that there were mussels which were sticking to them and which were growing more quickly than the wild mussels which he used to collect. So, quite simply, what he did, he put in some piles. That was in 1137 or 1237.
Today it is big business, and from reasons of public safety it is a well regulated business:
The farmed mussels are in an area of the sea bed. There are leased plots, of course on the sea bed. There are leases which are for 25 years. Now, the young men who are starting in the business cannot take up the succession of their fathers without being to maritime school which gives them the right to be able to practice this trade, whilst before it was father to son. Now it is very, very regulated.
There is a competitor to the famed mussel and it is the mussel on a line. The mussel on a line grows on long lines floating on the sea. So they are always in water and grow quickly. But for connoisseurs, it is not the same thing...
The mussels on a line, the mussels which are grown on lines in the middle of the sea are going to be... much bigger since they are always feeding, right, but they will not be as good from the point of view of taste.
The good season for eating mussels is really now:
The female mussels mate in spring, so I tell you... end of March, beginning of April, and then you will only eat these mussels the year following, from the 15th June.
Of course, when the mussels are best, it is summer, thanks to the sunshine as I explained to you, which is going to give that good flavour to the farmed mussel.
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