The Arès Oyster Festival

When sleepy villages go wild…

In the absence of one of those trendy blackboard walls in the kitchen, where you can remind yourself to buy toilet paper and other essential items that you shouldn’t really need to be reminded to buy, alongside some esoteric words of wisdom to inspire and motivate you on a daily basis…we have a white board pen and the fridge door.

Here we list places we want to visit, restaurants to eat at and occasionally a reminder to buy toilet paper…no words of wisdom however.

The thing with this kind of mind jogger is that you never actually look at them. You have to jog your mind to look at the mind jogger. We have grown accustomed to our smudged blue marked fridge door and don’t even see the words anymore.

So before I wipe it clean I wanted to make a dent in the list…that’s what it’s for after all. It’s our third year anniversary, a meagre number of years admittedly, but any excuse for a treat.A few months back we enjoyed watching Gordon, Gino & Fred’s Road Trip on ITV.

Gordon Ramsay, Gino D’Acampo and Fred Sirieix, in a camper van, travelling through France, Italy and Scotland, each showing the other two the gastronomic highlights of their own country, obviously in a competitive vein, and leading to much hilarity.

Fred was championing Oysters, and took the two chefs to the Arcachon Oyster Festival just outside Bordeaux. A local celebration of all things Oyster. And we wanted to go.

Hence the scribble on the fridge just under the travel list including Mount Fuji and Oregon saying Arcachon Oyster Festival & Cap Ferret.

It just so happens that the festival falls around the time of our anniversary so I secretly book us a trip to Bordeaux and include a day trip out to Arcachon Bay and the Arès Oyster Festival.

The Arcachon Basin is a horseshoe crescent with Cap Ferret at its furthest tip, and the larger town of Arcachon at the opposing end. On the north side of the arch, is Arès. A tiny unassuming village with I imagine not a great deal to shout about most of the year round, except for Oysters.

Mid August sees the whole Basin in celebration of the oysters and in fact all things seafood from sardines to mussels. Oysters area huge deal in the region, and August is the time to celebrate.

Finding any information about these festivals on the old inter web is not that easy. I finally found a website, which I’ve actually failed to discover again, for the Arès Festival. It was listed as the event of the season, and the photos looked like a lot of fun.

So without a huge amount of info to hand I hired a car and drove Paul out of Bordeaux, where he was very happy working his way through all the wine bars, towards uncertainty and possible horrific holiday traffic.

We decided to stop off at Arcachon itself first as the festival in Arès didn’t kick off until later. Arcachon was packed..but we managed to park and headed straight into the covered market, La Halle.

Here we sat at the wonderful Oyster Bar Huitres Laban and had the best brunch ever. Oysters, Smoked Salmon and a tiny tin of local pâté…so simple and delicious.

It’s not until we spoke to a tour guide back in Bordeaux that we learnt the importance of this festival that reaches across the whole Arcachon Basin. “Oysters are like religion here” he told us, and the passion for these little alien looking blobs of saline and sweetness really comes into its own once you reach Arès.

Although as we drove into the little town, expecting crowds and traffic like the Nottinghill Carnival, there was a disconcerting tumble weed feeling of not a lot going on here…

After another failed attempt at finding the festival website, we decided to head to the beach… if there’s at party it’ll be on the beach right?

And thankfully it was. Phew! Awkward failed anniversary treat avoided. We were a bit early that’s all.

By 6pm it seemed the entire town was out, sitting on wooden benches and hoofing down huge portions of mussels, calamari, and of course their beloved oysters.

There was a fairground, non seafood food stalls of sausages & duck, and bars of Bordeaux wine at €7 / bottle. The main accompaniment was a brilliant brass “oompah” band playing French rugby songs and covers of Christina Aguilera.

The queues were huge. Mainly due to the fact that you had to queue to buy a ticket for your food, then queue again for the food itself. Each kiosk being manned by ladies of a certain age with very little sense of urgency. It was playing havoc with my London streetfood mentality of speedy service. But queuing is fine with a bottle of wine and an oompah band.

But after all this 4 day festival is more about the community celebrating their work and culture of producing these oysters. Families were out with their children and their dogs having the best time ever. It’s a spirit lifting event and one that is not on the tourist trail. It doesn’t need to be.

Thousands of oysters, washing up bowls of mussels, plastic containers of calamari and one of the best beach firework displays we’ve ever seen. It was a proper party and oh so French!


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