Between France and its seafood, it is a true love story. From the Paleolithic era, prehistoric men living on the coasts ate oysters, as evidenced by the millions of shell coins found by archaeologists. This food practice then continued during antiquity and the Middle Ages, then until today, sometimes reserved for the richest, sometimes popular food.
“In the past, consumption was primarily reserved for the powerful, the elite. It was a marker of wealth, but not yet a marker of Christmas,” demystifies Éric Birlouez, specialist in the history of food. “Oysters are eaten both by the humblest on the coasts and by the richest in the cities in the hinterland, especially in Paris”adds Loïc Bienassis, researcher at the European Institute of Food History and Cultures at the University of Tours.
The oyster is actually a fragile animal and prone to bacterial contamination, especially if the cold chain is broken. The longer it is transported, the greater the risk of poisoning. “You have to eat them quickly, so the price was absolutely phenomenalexplains Eric Birlouez. In order to bring them very quickly, we traveled at full speed, we regularly changed the horses. It was a privilege reserved for the wealthy.
First class travel
The tasting of molluscs changes in dimension when the first advances in transport appear, especially with the advent of refrigerated means of transport: fish and shellfish can be transported more easily inland, it has been democratized in large cities such as Paris.
“From the railways in the middle of the XIXe century there has been an improvement. We then brought the oysters to the cities, for the bourgeoisie, those who could afford itsays Eric Birlouez. Until the first half of XXe century, consumption remained elitist. It was not a daily consumption, although it was not unusual either: it remained concentrated on big occasions, when we invited or when we went out.
But according to Martin Bruegel, director of research at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae), the more popular classes could also afford to taste it: “At that time, oysters were more of a ‘populux’. The people – the manual workers – could pay for it from time to time, for example after receiving the wages. There were many scales in the big cities and especially in Paris.
A privilege for the elite or a small occasional pleasure for the less fortunate, the oyster is in any case a noble product tasted during a specific event, to mark the occasion. This is one of the keys to understanding its presence on our festive tables today, as analyzed by historian Loïc Bienassis: “The oyster is traditionally a luxury delicacy with no particular connection to Christmas, but it is one of the fine and expensive products which experience a consumption peak during the festive period, precisely because Christmas is the time when we allow ourselves this extraordinary expense.
Seafood of the months in “r”
Another factor that justifies the democratization of these bivalves on French tables lies in oyster production. “It took a “quasi-industrial” turn around 1860says food historian Martin Bruegel. ONE new way of producing then gives the opportunity to increase the harvest in astonishing dimensions. In short, oysters have become the herd of the sea.”
As fish and shellfish have increased, prices have fallen, consumption has increased and spread over the year. After all, the celebrations at the end of the year concentrate most of their taste. “It is difficult to determine exactly how the oyster became a Christmas dishsays Loïc Bienassis. But the fact is that oysters are a winter dish: the habit that comes from the Ancien Régime is to eat them in the months of “r”, from September to April. The month of December and the festivities that characterize it thus fall right in the middle of this oyster season, which is then available in abundance for year-end celebrations.
In addition to transport and preservation, facilitated by low temperatures, the quality of molluscs reaches its peak especially during the winter period. “Summer is the time when oysters multiply, they are so milky and not appreciated for their taste. So it’s health reasons [éviter la chaleur afin de conserver la fraîcheur du produit, ndlr] and gastronomy, which explains why we ate oysters in winter”stresses agricultural engineer Éric Birlouez.
“Why especially Christmas? Because we want to make a festive meal that marks a break with everyday life: We want to eat more, more refined, richer, more expensive dishes that we don’t usually buy.
Religious tradition and lean meals
If Christmas is really a moment of celebration where the festivities go well, the event remains a religious tradition. However, the eve of Christ’s birth was supposed to be a time of penance, marked by a lean meal in the evening of the 24th followed by a fat meal after midnight mass on the 25th of December.
That’s good: oysters, considered lean foods, fall squarely within these rules. “The church forbade the consumption of meat during Advent. So we ate seafood, like oysters., recalls Eric Birlouez.
However, these shells did not wait for the blessing of the church to penetrate the plates: they were appreciated long before the establishment of the famous religious holiday and are therefore not historically associated with Christmas. In reality, “the consumption of oysters in France in quantity and in almost all social classes is quite recent”, notes the specialist. It is thanks to all these factors (economic, health, gastronomic or even religious) that the clam has conquered its place on our festive tables without being predetermined there.
Christmas oyster in danger?
Can we therefore talk about tradition? According to Eric Birlouez, “The oyster is really one of the essentials for a majority of French people who want a traditional meal for Christmas, it is a landmark and a mark of the holiday”. France is actually the leading producer and consumer of oysters in Europe, with around 100,000 tons produced each year, according to the National Shellfish Farming Committee. It is at the end of the year party that the quantity is highest with 70,000 tonnes.
If the French love it today, Loïc Bienassis reminds us that the consumption of oysters at Christmas is not rooted in a thousand-year-old tradition: “A newer but well-established habit can certainly disappear, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Moreover, there is a true French taste for oysters. What could change this festive consumption would undoubtedly be a crisis of supply and an increase in prices, or even a crisis of demand: tastes change, nothing is set in stone. Once again, the “classics” on the Christmas table in France are the latest must-haves for the most part.”
According to historian Martin Bruegel, it was actually the food industry that promoted certain products, such as oysters, to invent a Christmas tradition: “Their success is bringing food together in the Christmas party, presenting it as a heritage, a legacy, as it came together relatively recently.”