Instead of leaving it to chance, Marissal starts his spats in screen-bottomed buckets in the island's marshes. Reaching through the flow of water that is pumped over them, he pulls out a handful of what look like translucent, glinting pebbles. These are the babies that he will eventually put out to sea in suspended cages to grow until they're about an inch and a half (3.81 centimeters) in length.
"In this nursery"—he runs three—"there are 100 million oysters," he says, "They'll go on to produce 5,000 tons of oysters."
With all his eggs in three baskets, Marissal is extremely attentive to them.
"I work seven days a week—you've got to pay tons of attention," he says. "If they start dying in the nursery, they all die."
Tony Berthelot is one of about 100 oystermen on the island and he's completely sold on the idea of buying from a nursery. He also uses modern techniques to make sure the quality of his offerings doesn't decrease as the years go by.
"The nurseries are allowing us to renew [the strength of our stock] and make sure we've got oysters with great characteristics," he says. Asked if he'd consider raising them from scratch, he looks at me like I've got two heads. "A nursery is an occupation in itself," he replies.
Hacking away at clumps of oysters with a medieval-looking hand tool to break them apart before selling them, he explains that one of the biggest challenges for the island's oysters is that they become more homogenous, and eventually bland-tasting.
To get around this problem, he spreads his oysters across several plots around the island, which allows him to both rotate his stock and give his customers what they want.
"You've got to be able to adapt—you've got to listen to the customer and make sure you respond," meaning that the oysters need to be both tasty and good-looking.
"Up to ten years ago, we were constantly working from the same genetic pool," he says, drawing a diagram of the island and how, like a town full of inbreeds, the oyster populations' quality went down as they continued to procreate without moving around. "Over time, we had products that were less and less interesting."
"Now, we've learned that it's more important to have quality."
Though Berthelot doesn't yet use triploids, he's considering at least a partial changeover within the next couple of years to take advantage of their desirable shape, durability, and clean, non-milky flavor.
On the tide flats outside of the town of Loix, Lucien Thaunay, a third-generation oysterman, shows that technology can take him only so far. Using a wooden dowel the size of a Billy club, he whacks the crap out of the wire mesh pouches his oysters grow in, obliterating any that have grown between the grates and separating those that are stuck together on the inside.
"You let them grow wild and they take on funny shapes…bananas, revolvers, telephones," he says, picking one off of the leg of the metal table that the pouches are attached to and chucking it into the incoming tide.
"I've done this all my life," he says, hacking away with glee. "My parents and my grandparents did this. I love this."
At about the hour most French schoolchildren are tucking in to an after-school brioche, I'm starving and have a seemingly unquenchable thirst. I ride my bike back to town, get a can of beer, buy a dozen of Berthelot's finest, take them to the seawall above some of his parcels, pull out my Laguiole pocket knife, and dig in.
It feels a bit macho, shucking and eating them next to where they were raised, but I don't care. They're ridiculously good.
I nick up my hands a bit and realize I've wiped them on my jeans so much that I'm going to smell like a fish on the train tomorrow but, again, I don't care.
They seem to get better and better as I gain momentum and by about number seven or ten, I reach a sort of bivalve nirvana. I also realize I could blow off the research part of things and eat two- or three-dozen more.
And the taste? They have a beautiful evolution of flavor: first, it's like a mouthful of seawater, then I chew and it gets sweet and that flavor lingers long after I've swallowed. The experts say they taste hazelnuts or sweet seaweed, but I don't. I taste La Digue.
By applying the latest advancements in science and technology—along with old-fashioned trial and error—the oyster industry in Arcachon, which began to flourish during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, has taken steps to enhance their products' quality and sustain the industry's future.
Which is a lesson no brand would want to shuck.