I just had my spring sojourn at Cap Ferret, a narrow, sandy peninsula across the bay from Arcachon, on the southwest coast of France. Cap Ferret is the height of relaxed chic, the Cote d’Azur in blue jeans. I discovered it by accident, because a friend of mine has a family home there, right down the street from the ponton where you get off the ferry from Arcachon. When I set foot on that wooden dock/bridge, it’s the first step on the walkway to paradise.
Cap Ferret is many things, not the least one of the oyster capitals of France thanks to the bay of Arcachon, which is peppered with oyster beds whose stakes stick up from the water like sentinels of delight, a sign that below, oysters are slurping plankton, getting fatter by the minute. When the tide is out, tractors ply the soft sand to bring in the bags of oysters which will be shaken out into baskets, rinsed, then delivered to restaurants and markets throughout the Hexagon. At Cap Ferret one can buy oysters, eat oysters, inhale the scent of oysters day and night. It’s the best in aromatherapy.
Because Cap Ferret is a skinny peninsula, you have your pick of swimming styles. On one side, over a big dune, is the lacy ocean. It looks lacy, that is, until you decide to go and defy the waves. Then, the power is enfolding, complete, noisy, delicious. Its power explains why the tagged concrete pillboxes built by the German army on the hills over the beach in World War II are now tumbling into the water, as the sand they sat on is reclaimed by the waves. We are always there in off season, when kite skiers are loners and lovely to watch, the surfers few. The ocean, in sum, belongs to us.
On the other side of the dune and a quick bicycle ride to the ponton is the “bassin” or bay, as calm as the ocean is wild, empty when the tide is out, the boats beached on their flanks, full and placid when the tide is in and you can swim right up to the oysters. The undertow can be ferocious, so you have to time it just right.
Aside from swimming, which takes up a good part of a fine Cap Ferret day, there is supper. Sometimes it is preceded by an apéritif at Chez Boulon across from a thin spit of land called the Mimbeau (pronounced Mambo) that sticks out to create a tiny bay where rowboats scud when the tide is in. After the “apéro” it’s back home by bike and then out comes the grill. It is battered, well-loved and perfect, the ground scattered with air-dried pine needles which can lend their spice when scattered over the coals, the smell of woodsmoke an absolute fit with the towering trees, the briny air, the sense of well-being that floats over the whole place.
There is a fish market in the main part of town but I’ve never been there, preferring instead to bicycle to the Quartier Ostréicole, the oyster neighborhood. There, a mix of wooden shacks and restaurants sell what the sea has to offer. My favorite vendor is Kiki, a powerfully built man with the fisherman’s gift of gab, who goes out to fish at night with his son, and stands behind a tiny fish counter, cleaning and selling until he has nothing left. Depending on the day that can be as early as 10 a.m. There might be sea bass and John Dory, cuttlefish and sole, mackerel and turbot. Not all at the same time of course, but no one cares. Everything Kiki offers is perfect as it offers the pure freshness of Cap Ferret.
Thanks to Kiki I grilled sea bream, sole, and turbot. I grilled oysters. After a morning at the Wednesday farmers’ market my basket was filled with early season eggplant, peppers and tomatoes and those went on the grill too. So did asparagus, zucchini, onions split in half, fat slices of bread brushed with olive oil then rubbed with garlic.
A bottle of St. Emilion completed each meal, and dessert was either a cannelé from patisserie Fredelian or the local specialty “dune blanche,” white dune, choux pastry filled with cream then buried in confectioners’ sugar.
A walk on the pontoon always ends the day, as the sun sets behind the dune de Pilat across the bay, the highest sand dune in Europe. Among the family of boats that clink gently are the elegant pinasses, the traditional fishing boat of Cap Ferret, low-slung and sexy as they rock back and forth, a lullaby to welcome the stars.