Cancale & Baie du Mont Saint-Michel

Spring needed to have sprung and with no sign of the coldest March on record easing, we escaped the snows on the South coast by catching a ferry to France.

With twelve days to spare before our return from Bilbao in Spain, we set about discovering Brittany.

Spinnaker Tower from the ferry

After docking at St Malo from our overnight crossing, we headed west along the coast to the fishing village of Cancale. The clifftop aire was open, and free, and we pitched up amongst a handful of vans before wandering down the steep and winding road to the famous centre of French gastronomy.

Slate-roofed and granite houses cluster together around the small bay which produces 15,000 tonnes of oysters every year. We watched as the receding tide revealed seven square kilometres of iron framed ‘beds’ on the sandy sea floor.

Selling on the slip

Stacked into the beds were bags or ‘pochons’ full of oysters, which spend two years or longer feeding on the natural plankton and growing to the desired size ready for eating.

The Bay of Mont Saint-Michel specialises in the breeding of the native French flat-shell oyster, the Belon. In a country which consumes 130,000 tonnes of oysters annually, the Belon represents only two percent as the far greater number are a hollow-shelled variety, imported initially from Japan in the 1970s. 

Baie de St Michel

Cancale has a nationwide reputation as being the producer of the finest French oysters, although the farmers in the Bay of Arcachon, closer to Bordeaux, may cock a snook at this.

The rocky coves at Cancale begin the glorious Emerald Coast. We meandered along the old smugglers route, the Sentier des Douaniers, in the direction of St Malo for views of Mont St Michel.

The waters in the bay were calm and milky under low grey skies and the air smelt warmly almond from the yellow-flowering gorse bushes. Alone on the path we admired pretty inlets and islands and idyllic granite-blocked manor houses set in open lawns of palm trees, magnolias and rhododendrons.

The similarity to the Cornish coast is striking. So too is the black and white insignia of the Breton flag, proudly waving from pretty properties, mostly empty and evidently second homes out of season.

Oyster beds

Later in the afternoon we returned to the harbourside and watched a small army of tractors and trailers deliver more ‘pochons’ onto the beds, where muddy workers in fisherman’s chest-high waders checked and turned the bags.

Along the slip onto the old harbour, La Houle, local women carried out a busy trade selecting and shucking the various grades of oyster for eager tasters. Having read a nearby poster detailing intimately the anatomy of an oyster, we were already put off.

Still, it made for some fun watching the various tastings progress enthusiastically with effusive gesticulations or with trepidation and much grimacing!