Cap Ferret and the Grill

oyster on grill
ARcachon bay
Leaving Arcachon

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.

oyster beds
Oyster beds at low tide
working oysters
Working the oysters

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.

sun on beach
The wild ocean side
The Bassin

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.

Chez Kiki

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.

FRENCH GRILL  available online; in bookstores June 12 (just in time for Father’s Day!)

Sea bream, its skin and scales left on the grill


oyster on grill
Oyster on the Grill @fhphoto

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.

Cannelé from Fredelian

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.

pinasse rouge
A pinasse
arrival Cap Ferret
Cap Ferret evening

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.

Cook Time
5 mins
Total Time
5 mins
ASTUCE: If you cannot find Pommeau use sherry in this recipe. Be sure to set the oysters cupped shell down so when they open, their juice doesn’t spill out. The size oyster you use depends on your own taste. I adore small oysters; there used to be a category called “boudeuses” in France, tiny little things that were the perfect size. That category is gone, so I just take the smallest oyster I can find so that I can enjoy them in one, ultra-crisp bite (and I can eat more that way!). I like to do these over the coals, with some smoke added. That way the brininess of the oyster has a delicate smoky overlay. SPECIAL EQUIPMENT: grape vine or other wood cuttings or chips, long tongs, oyster glove or heavy towel, oyster knife PREPARATION TIME: DIFFICULTY: piece of cake
Servings: 4 servings
  • 2 dozen medium-sized oysters shells scrubbed clean
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter melted
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons Pommeau or dry sherry heated slightly
  1. Build a medium –sized fire in the barbecue, or light up the gas grill with all three burners. When the coals are red and dusted with ash, spread them in a tight, single layer leaving a perimeter of grill with no coals under it; they need to emit concentrated heat. Set the grill over the coals.
  2. When the grill is hot add some grape vine cuttings, or the wood of your choice and let it flame up. Then, set the oysters – cupped side down – on the grill, balancing them so they sit upright. Close the grill, leaving the vents open, and cook until the oysters open, which should take about 5 minutes. Look at the oysters carefully – sometimes they just open a bit. Don’t wait for them to open wide – they’ll be over cooked.
  3. Remove the oysters from the grill. Holding an oyster in one of your hands that is protected by either a thick glove or a folded towel, and using an oyster knife, cut the muscle inside the top shell of the oyster to free it, and discard the shell. Free the oyster, which will be snuggled in the bottom shell by severing the muscle that holds it. This isn’t necessary, but it makes life easier for the oyster eater!
  4. Drizzle each oyster with an equal amount of melted butter, then drizzle with an equal amount of Pommeau, and serve immediately, while the oysters are still hot.

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