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THE JOLLY OYSTER MAN
He is the epitome of a jolly fisherman - plump and pleasant, warm and welcoming. Although, as Jean-Louis Masson is quick to point out, he is really not a fisherman at all. For his chosen field of speciality is that rather gooey bivalve mollusk found in temperate and warm coastal waters around the world - the oyster. Running his own business at Bouzigues, on the Bassin de Thau, near the handsome city of Montpellier in the sunny Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, he is one of the top ten oyster producers on the entire Mediterranean coastline, supplying wholesalers, multiples and private purchasers alike.
"We have just been awarded the silver medal at the Paris agricultural salon", he explains with understandable pride. "And the reason for that, I say, is because our oysters have a stronger taste than those in the Atlantic, the sea here being smaller, more enclosed, saltier and iodised."
It does not require the presence of Sigmund Freud to know that Jean-Louis Masson is a happy man. Could this be because he spends a not insignificant part of his working day popping his products into his mouth, the reputation of oysters as an aphrodisiac dating back to Roman times? Well, even a fleeting visit to Masson’s modern production unit certainly gives the impression of a well-run happy ship, where workers and management alike go around with that same contented grin on the face, giving rise to the suspicion that Jean-Louis is perhaps not alone in conducting regular spot checks throughout the day - all in the name of quality control of course. "Attention aux effets secondaires", Masson kids his staff, "watch out for those well-known side-effects". One is left feeling a little uncertain if his advice is designed to reduce the consumption of stock by his own employees, or to protect them from excessive chandelier-swinging upon completion of the working day.
But is there any truth in the randy reputation of oysters? Well, certainly oysters are low in fat, high in minerals, and as such quite a healthy food. Phosphorous, iodine and zinc can all do a lot of good, especially zinc, which is said to increase both sperm and testosterone production as well as the secretion of a vaginal lubricant. And the great Casanova himself is reputed to have been a firm believer in oysters, eating 50 of them every morning in the bath together with the lady who happened to be the object of his desire. That said, recent research has revealed that a group of male pearl-divers on the island of Kamaran, who get most of their nourishment from oysters, have a very low sex drive indeed. Perhaps, then, it is all in the mind. Whatever the case, Masson is not complaining, for despite a sluggish export market to England, business is booming.
Come the month of December you are likely to find both Jean-Louis and the entire team working flat out, no less than 70% of annual turnover being achieved between the 15th and 30th of that month. For whilst Brits are tucking into turkey and Christmas pud - the French are busy prizing open the two valves of the oyster shell, held together at their narrow ends by an elastic ligament, and devouring the contents - the vast majority of oysters being eaten raw, and therefore not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. By the time the oyster meets its maker, so to speak, it is likely to be approximately three years old. Prior to those fateful festivities the oyster would have survived by its tiny hairlike structures called cilia drawing water inward by means of wavelike motions - some two to three gallons of water passing through in an hour.
In common with just about every other businessman in France, the greater part of Masson’s anger is directed towards his own government, whose expensive and cumbersome social security system means that for every single franc paid in wages, almost the same amount again has to be paid in charges, hardly an incentive for recruitment, and very possibly one of the reasons why France now has the highest rate of unemployment in the whole of Europe.
There are approximately 2700 platforms or tables operating in the Bassin de Thau, a lagoon afforded some protection by the ancient fishing town of Sete, which itself sits on a narrow tongue of land between the Mediterranean and the lagoon. What makes these platforms unique is that they are composed of nothing more elaborate than disused railway track, from which either rubber tubing or ropes are suspended into the water below, and to which the oysters attach themselves naturally and grow. It is an environment in which Masson feels entirely at home - although he really only stumbled upon his chosen metier by chance.
"My father had a farmhouse near to the lagoon", he explains, "but he spent most of his working life tending to his own vineyard. He wanted to have his boat on the lagoon, but at the time licenses were only being granted to professional oyster growers, because the area was being developed with that in mind. I only went into the oyster business, therefore, in order to get a place for my father’s boat on the lagoon. We eventually got him that license - but I got the bug like many in the business and have been working with oysters ever since."
Masson sells his oysters from anything between 50 centimes (55p) to 1 franc 50 (166p) per piece - that price then being doubled by the time his sea-food finds its way onto any number of retail shelves. Those prices might not sound excessive - but do remember that unlike most foods by far the greater part of the weight is taken up by the immaculately formed dark gray shells.
"It’s worth every centime" Jean-Louis is quick to retort. "For not only do they taste delicious - oysters are one of our last remaining natural foods. They are entirely natural - no fertilizers, no chemicals, no additives - nothing."
So there you are. Oysters, slimy and slithery perhaps, but good for mind, body and soul alike.
The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is at www.jeremyjosephs.com Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer.
Many of his articles are available online. Please check the sitemap for a complete list.