It’s undeniable that there’s a lot of good food in France. French cuisine is even adorned on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List. The French gastronomy is a complicated one comprised of innumerable dishes that require precision, technique and passion. While I’ll never turn down a good coq au vin or cassoulet my favorite French bites are the simplest ones. Meat and cheese platters along with steak frites rank high on my France food list. But my absolute favorite bite in France requires hardly any work at all.
Oysters, or huîtres in French, are a delicacy I often seek out more than once a day whenever I am lucky enough to be traveling through the country. The cold waters off the more than 2000 miles of French shores are the perfect breeding ground for the briny bivalve. The country is home to one of the most complete oyster ecologies and also the first country in Europe to begin cultivating the delicacy on a large scale. With seven distinct oyster regions all with their own unique flavors it’s easy to try one or two varieties a day and still not sample them all.
Though I still have a lot of oyster tasting to do in France- a huîtres-centric trip Brittany and Normandy with a detour to the Bordeaux town Arcachon is high on my travel bucket list- I’ve sampled quite a bit in Paris and Provence. And while I’ve never had a bad oyster in either two particular oyster bars have become my favorite haunts to try them.
In Paris, there’s no beating Le Bar à Huîtres located at the juncture of Boulevards du Montparnasse and Raspail in tony St. Germain. Le Bar serves up some of the finest oysters I’ve ever tasted- and I’ve never even been inside. At the outdoor bar, patrons passing by can pick out their catch and the restaurants superior oyster shuckers will dish out the bivalves. Chilled and complete with a squeeze of lemon it’s hard for me to imagine anything more delightful than eating fresh oysters on a quintessential Parisian street.
Oysters in France are not relegated to Paris and the north. The varieties found in southern Provence are equally delightful. One of my favorite activities when visiting family in Aix-en-Provence is to stroll the markets and to sample some of the oysters sold by vendors that are plucked straight from the ocean. In Marseille, however, those who like oysters should head straight to Toinou located on Cours Saint-Louis just around the corner from the city’s famed port.
Toinou is a simple yet elegant affair and one of the most renowned seafood bars in a city known for its daily catch. The no fuss establishment is without white tablecloths, and the impeccable fish and shellfish platters are served with no fanfare. Like Le Bar à Huîtres in Paris, however, my favorite way to enjoy Toinou’s oysters is to have them shucked for me right on the street. The restaurant’s selection of oyster’s is procured each day and proudly displayed to all those who walk by. The men who work the stall are happy to help patrons with their oyster selection, recommending particular varieties based on what you tell them you like and which oysters they think you should try anyway. Whenever I go, I leave the choice of oyster selection to them and have been enamored with each and every huître I’ve tried.
Though Le Bar à Huîtres and Toinou are two of my favorite oyster bars, I look forward to going back to France and discovering more. In a country where life and my travels mostly revolve around sampling the food this shouldn’t be too hard to do.