Hunting the Elusive Belon Oysters of France
Sometimes inspiration for our travels comes from odd places. Other times that inspiration is as ordinary as can be. While we try to be leaders in the travel field, picking out new and exotic destinations to share with our readers, occasionally we find our next “must see” place like everyone else–watching TV. Some might argue that Anthony Bourdain (our favorite foodie-gone-traveler) rarely explores the mundane, but then, in a not too long ago episode of No Reservations, we noticed he was in Brittany, France sampling, among other things, the world-renown oysters of Belon, France.
“How exotic could that possibly be?” I asked Corinne.
But, as we’ve come to discover over and over again, sometimes the most interesting places can be found hidden in the most touristy of places. In fact, one of the reasons we love France so much is how easy it is to take a step or two away from the crowds and find yourself completely off the beaten track. Inspired by this episode, we planned a spontaneous road trip to the region to walk in Anthony’s footsteps.
Of course, everyone goes to Brittany to photograph Mont Saint-Michel at sunset, enjoy a steaming basket of mussels at a late summer festival, walk along the massive stone ramparts of St. Malo, and sip a cup or two of pungent apple cidre. Some also argue that this is not the area for culinary treasures as there is little wine growing in the area. But we found plenty to enjoy all the same.
We based ourselves in a small stone cottage situated in the tiny hamlet of La Fontenelle, a quaint village with a picturesque collection of other stone houses and one ancient church. We have found this to be a good strategy for exploring France, limiting ourselves to one region and even to only a few departments within the region. You can find these amazing cottages all over France available at a good price for a weeklong stay. Our cottage here featured a cozy living room with a fireplace, a sun drenched sitting room perfectly situated for soaking up the morning rays while enjoying our coffee, two comfortable bedrooms, and a small orchard of apple and plum trees that provided us an abundance of fruit throughout the stay.
We took a few day-long road trips throughout different parts of Brittany along with some simpler excursions to sights closer to the cottage, but one of the more memorable drives was along the southern coast of the peninsula between Lorient and Quimper. The coastline here is difficult to follow with too many bays, rivers, inlets, and peninsulas to count. Once you leave the highway, there’s no single road to follow, instead the route consists of a confusing maze of smaller routes that will eventually take you to where you’re heading. If you miss one road sign, don’t worry, you’ll have two or three more to choose from soon enough. We had a few particular destinations in mind so these gave us way points to head for when all else failed.
The one spot I was looking forward to most was the one that caught my attention while watching that inspiring Anthony Bourdain show. He found, or his producers had found, a small fishing village popular across France for its oysters. We had to go to Belon to eat oysters farmed fresh daily from the oyster beds right there in the inlet.
We found Belon easily enough and followed the road signs to the Port de Belon down a narrow, steep and twisty road that ended abruptly right at the port. There was no village here, just a few small houses, a single café, and small, official looking building that served as the port master’s office and the local fish market. Somehow we timed it perfectly arriving at the lowest point of low tide. Most of the boats that were still in port were laying on their sides in the thick sticky muddy of the inlet, waiting for the rising waters to relieve them of their awkwardness.
Apparently this was a special day in France, for everywhere we looked along the sand bars and rocky stretches along the tide line there were people digging and raking and searching for hidden treasure. We ventured closer to the digging fields, curiosity overflowing in our minds, to see what they could be hunting. Clams, oysters, snails? All were real possibilities. As it turns out, the area is not only known for its sweet and nutty flavored oysters, but these small clams that were destined for hundreds of dinner plates can be found here as well. All it takes is a rake, a small shovel, and a basket or bucket to haul your catch off the beach. But where were the famous oysters of Belon? We found rows and rows of oyster farm beds along the river waiting just as patiently as the beached boats for the cool water to rise up and hide them from view again. We found the oysters, now where was the oyster bar? Where could we get a plate of these succulent treats from the sea?
Across the river we could see a few more buildings, some shacks, a restaurant or two, and what looked like another fish market building. A quick look at the map showed us the route around the inlet and inland a few kilometers to the nearest bridge. We hopped in the car and drove back up the winding narrow road and around the river and back down to the inlet passing through the cute little town of Riec sur Belon along the way.
My bearings were dead on and we found ourselves on the opposite bank waiting for a seat at the rustic oyster farm of Anne de Belon. This busy oyster farm has been run by the same family for three generations and was one of the first in the area. Here you can sample the fruits of the sea in the form of oysters and clams of all sizes and types. There’s not much to the place; the main operations building is a long, low wooden building with a big barn style door and few weather beaten wooden tables out front. There is a small stone building and some older stone oyster pools but the real business is down in the rows of beds along the river floor.
Getting there: The best way to get to Belon, France is by car. From the direction of Lorient, take the exit for the D16 (Quimperle Centre) off the N165 then follow the D16 and the D116 south towards Moelan-sur-Mer. Continue on the D116 south to the turn off for the Port de Belon to visit the port side of the river or turn onto the D24 toward Riec-sur-Belon to get to the Anne de belon side of the river. From the center of Riec-sur-Belon look for signs to the Port de Belonand follow them out of town to the south east. Eventually you’ll pick up signs to Anne de Belon.
From the direction of Pont Aven (a very popular tourist destination in the area) follow the D783 east out of town in the direction of Quimperle and take the turn off for the centreville in Riec-sur-Belon.
Other options include the regional bus line 47 running between Concarneau and Quimperle. Check the website for current timetables and stops: http://www.t-b-k.fr/horaires/lignes-intercommunales/horaires-d-hiver/ligne-47.
Another possibility is by boat out of Pont Aven but beware, you’ll need to book this early (at least 24 hours in advance) and understand the times are based around the tide. Chewck the website for current information and sailing times: http://www.vedettes-aven-belon.com/
Where to eat: Anne de Belon of course! http://www.huitres-annedebelon.com/