Cancale, a fishing village in Brittany, a northwestern region of France, has for centuries been known for its high-quality oysters. King Louis XIV, who reigned from the late 17th to early 18th centuries, is said to have had the region’s delicacy delivered to the Palace of Versailles on the outskirts of Paris.
In recent years, roughly 90 percent of the oysters farmed in this village facing the Bay of Mont Saint Michel are the offspring of Japanese oysters from Tohoku’s Sanriku region. The remainder — flat oysters native to Europe — are called Belons.
Unlike in Japan, where oysters are fried or cooked in hot pots, the French typically eat theirs raw with a dash of lemon juice.
“Around 1970, some infection spread, killing a Portugal species that had been dominant,” said Marcel Le Moal, the 58-year-old first deputy mayor of Cancale. “We imported shellfish fry from Portugal but they were soon spoiled. It was hard to breed flat oysters. We imported Japanese oyster fry from Japan. They turned out to be resilient to disease and grew strong.”
Le Moal, a former oyster fisherman himself, said in early March: “We could make a fresh start once again thanks to Japanese oysters. We are thankful and express our appreciation.”
Third-generation fisherman Francois-Joseph Pichot, 45, who has worked in the family business on and off since he was 14, noted that even as a child, he knew of the famed Japanese oysters.
“As a child, I got to know about Japan as the country where the oysters came from,” he said.
Around 40 years have passed since those oysters were first taken to France. French fishermen had shellfish fry delivered from Japan whenever their stock was damaged by infection.
And had it not been for the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 last year, a brother-in-law of Pichot would have traveled to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, by the end of that month to purchase fry.
“I could not believe the TV news report showing a fishing boat grounded on a bridge in the immediate vicinity of the place my brother-in-law was supposed to visit,” Pichot said,
When he learned that oyster farms had been ravaged by tsunami, he solicited cooperation from other French fishermen to send supplies necessary for reopening the farms in the disaster-hit region.
But different approaches are taken to growing oysters in Sanriku than in Cancale.
In Japan, oyster fry are attached to scallop shells that are tied together in stacks on a rope. The rope is then lowered into the sea. This method allows oysters to grow in varying shapes and does not pose any problems as long as oyster meat alone is delivered. It does not, however, allow for the production of shelled oysters in larger quantities.
In Cancale, they are grown in bags so that almost all of them can be delivered with shells. Ropes, an essential item in Japan, are not used there.
After the March 11 disaster, Yuko Ikeda, who with her French husband runs restaurants in Tokyo, Paris and Cancale, acted as a go-between for the French village and the Japanese region recovering from the disaster.
Ikeda took a hint from French mussel farmers who used the rope technique and sounded out Japanese fishermen about this equipment, eventually finding the right supplies to give them.
A French government fund financed the procurement and transport of the ropes and buoys under a project for the country to aid the Japanese oyster farmers.
It was against this backdrop that the French came to realize their increased reliance on Japanese oysters and the importance of maintaining a strong relationship.
“We are very troubled because a (French) national research institute has stopped allowing imports of shellfish fry from Japan since the quake,” Pichot said.
As demand has risen for shelled oysters in recent years, interest has been growing among Japanese in the French method of farming.
Toshimi Abe, 35, from Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, is planning to switch to the French farming method this summer.
Abe lost his oyster farming facilities and ship in the March 2011 calamity. Estimating that he would need around ¥50 million to restore his business, he contemplated calling it quits.
“We have been forced to shut down because of the disaster,” Abe’s wife wrote on Twitter.
However, before Abe threw in the towel, he received a message from an online dealer in fresh oysters.
It was through this chance encounter that he would be introduced to the French method of oyster farming.
Since shelled oysters typically fetch higher unit prices than just oyster meat, he concluded he could make a profit on small-scale farming.
Abe was also drawn to the method after noticing the different supplies used by the French sent over as aid.
In them, he noticed a plastic device for attaching young oysters to shells. Oysters in the shell are usually hard to remove, but with the device they can be removed with ease and put into bags.
Last October, Abe visited Cancale with colleagues to see the oyster farms and talk to growers himself.
Apart from their commercial ties, Japanese and French oyster farmers had not been in such close touch before the disaster.
But now, Le Moal and others were holding a market at a square in front of the Cancale city office in order to support the reconstruction of the Sanriku area.
Pichot’s niece even started selling crepes at the junior high school she attended.
And Armelle Chaufaux, 43, who works at a local oyster diner, posed as a model for a picture postcard and sent a message of support to disaster victims in Japan.
Money raised through these activities was sent to the Miyagi prefectural Kesennuma Koyo high school, which has a fisheries department.
Other projects are also being considered, including one for Japan to transfer technology to a fisheries school in Cancale or another for France to provide Japan with knowhow in promoting tourism.
“Working in the sea is hard labor. It would be wonderful if people engaged in similar tasks could deepen their ties,” Le Moal said.