France is one of the world’s leading producers of oysters, its seaside towns brimming with shacks that serve up freshly shucked delicacies from local farms. And Parisians are among the world’s most passionate consumers of oysters, that mollusc with the most seductive of reputations. Perhaps it’s because oysters have a long history of esteemed Parisians lovers, from princesses to playboys … But perhaps also because oysters take Parisians on sensorial trips to the seaside.
Just as vegetable dishes hurtle Parisians and their tastebuds back to their ancestral lands (that beloved concept of le terroir), eating oysters, which are infused with the trace minerals and salinity of their native waters, is akin to a gastronomic beachside holiday.
You can find oysters on pretty much every Parisian menu, all year round. However the best oysters are served in the colder months, as oyster season runs from September to April. And the best way to eat them is at a restaurant that specialises in this seafood.
A French oyster eatery is called une huîtrerie. (It’s quite a mouthful to say, but once you get the hang of it, the word rolls all around the mouth like the juiciest of molluscs.) A huîtrerie serves its oysters freshly shucked — sometimes done so right in front of you — and its menu of options can at first be mind-boggling.
There are numerous French regions famed for their particular oysters. Normandy produces the much-loved pulpy Isigny oyster, the nutty Saint-Vaast and the sweet Utah Beach. Brittany is celebrated for its firm and salty Cancale, its bracing Belon, and its plump and juicy Paimpol. Also look out for oysters from Arcachon Bay, which are originally wild, and oysters from the central west coast hubs of Île de Ré and Marennes-Oléron.
Learning French oyster heritage is a lesson in coastal geography. French people, as they grow up, are taught the tastes and textures to expect from the various types of oysters — just as with, say, cheese and wine. As a visitor, don’t feel abashed to ask a waiter about the back-stories of a restaurant’s oysters, and ask for recommendations based on your personal preferences.
Grade is also important to the French when it comes to oysters. There are three rankings, according to maturity, and therefore meatiness: starting with Fine de Claire, progressing to Spéciale de Claire, and culminating with the much esteemed Pousse en Claire.
And just when you thought oyster ordering (in another language at that!) couldn’t be more complicated … Size is the other important component to consider. In France, oysters are costed by weight, and the number assigned to an oyster indicates its size. Oysters are numbered between 1 and 5; the higher the figure, the smaller the oysters. No.3 is the most common size of oyster to appear on a restaurant menu.
Right, got all that? Now it’s time to order, along with a glass of crisp sancerre, sit back, relax, and slurp away…
6 Parisian Huîtreries
Saint-Germain is spoilt for seafood restaurants, but one of the most raved-about is this tiny seaside-themed eatery that brims over with passion. Let yourself by guided by the owners’ recommendation (with wines, too). They really know their stuff, and only serve the best, and some of the rarest, in the business.
3 Rue de Montfaucon, 75006
L’Écailler du Bistrot
Renowned cookbook author — and Francophile — Patricia Wells doesn’t know ‘any better fish restaurant in Paris’ than this. Its seafood menu is indeed inspired, but the oyster offering is more than attraction enough. Expect options from a wide range of regions, in various sizes.
22 Rue Paul Bert, 75011
Au Cancale de Rocher
Despite the name, it’s more restaurant than huîtrerie nowadays, but you should still come here for the rococo prettiness of this place, looking out on the lively market street while working your way through a platter of oysters, just as author Honoré de Balzac (no less) once did.
78 Rue Montorgueil, 75002
This poissonnerie, which has been selling high-quality seafood since 1979, doubles as a bar à coquillages. Try to nab a seat at one of the few tables, and order an array of freshly shucked oysters, along with any other choices of the artfully displayed seafood.
6 Rue du Marché Saint-Honoré, 75001
Le Mary Celeste
This breezy gastropub is the best place for oysters in the bustling third arrondissement (especially when happy hour has them at €1 each). You can eat your oysters fresh and au naturel, of course, but consider one of the accompanying sauces, which are as inventive as you’d except from a place that also mixes up a fabulous cocktail.
1 Rue Commines, 75003
Sure, it’s rather touristy … but you can’t beat Le Dôme for fabulousness of history. Dating from 1898, it was the first major Montparnasse café to attract the cool kids of Paris: the writers and artists, dancers and models. The once-star-studded terrace is now enclosed, and the café has morphed into a seafood restaurant, but any lover of Paris should come here at least once, for the splendid décor and history-infused air, as much as for the selection of oysters in all sizes.