BOURCEFRANC-LE-CHAPUS, France — For Thierry and V้ronique Gillardeau, the oyster has become their world.
A member of the fourth generation of a family of oyster farmers, Thierry, 37, has brought an economics education to what has become the most famous name in oysters: Gillardeau.
The family’s small private company, founded 110 years ago here by the sea near La Rochelle and the le d’Ol้ron in western France, produces only “sp้ciales,” oysters that are fleshier and, consequently, more expensive than the standard. The Gillardeau name has become associated with fine oysters, rather like Herm่s for neckties.
Thierry’s father, G้rard Gillardeau, 61, took over the business from his father, Jean, who ran it after his father, Henri, who began as an illiterate farmhand before turning his hand to oysters. Oyster farming then dominated the economy of the region, where the Charente and Seudre Rivers add their fresh water to the salt flats and estuaries.
Henri did well enough to build a large house opposite City Hall in this village of 3,500 people, a house he called “a m’suffit,” or “That’ll do.” Thierry and V้ronique live there today with their two children.
“My grandfather couldn’t read, but he knew how to count,” G้rard said. “Now, oyster farmers know how to read but not how to count.”
Many of his neighbors still farm oysters “the way they did in the Middle Ages,” he said, by taking the seedlings to full growth in small oyster basins next to the sea, farming them in small, flat-bottomed boats and doing much of the work by hand. “They could be more profitable,” he said. “But the past is so important to them that they don’t want to change.”
That attitude makes the Gillardeau family something of an anomaly in a nation famously resistant to change, especially in how it produces food and wine.
In 1978, G้rard sought to expand beyond his village and found a partner in the huge wholesale market in Rungis, just outside of Paris, a step that helped the Gillardeau company make a name for itself. For the past 15 years, sales have increased roughly 20 percent a year, Thierry said at a conference in May. As a private company, it does not reveal its accounts.
“In some business schools, they are studying our case like a case of marketing,” he said. “But you have to know that there is no marketing behind Gillardeau, only quality.” In fact, he said, marketing is by word of mouth. “Because our oysters are good people want to eat them again and again,” he said. “They will go to a restaurant and say, ‘Why don’t you serve Gillardeau?'”
The number of local oyster farmers here in western France has dropped from more than 3,000 two decades ago to 700 now. Gillardeau no longer farms its oysters here. It now produces roughly half its oysters in Normandy, near Utah Beach, and half in County Cork, in Ireland, where the waters are cleaner and the sites easier to farm with tractors, and where there are fewer parasites and less agricultural runoff.
It employs some 100 people in all, but still sorts, finishes and packs its oysters here, producing about 2,000 tons a year of an annual French production of some 130,000 tons.
Unlike many other companies, Gillardeau buys seedling oysters that are one to two years old. That way it avoided most of the impact of the widespread death of younger French seedling oysters this year, believed to have been caused by a warm winter, heavy spring rains and possibly excess runoff of fertilizer and pesticides from local vegetable farms.
To protect the future, Thierry bought 20 million seedlings unaffected by the blight at a premium in Ireland, where the company will raise them itself.
Gillardeau normally farms the two-year-old oysters it buys for the next two years, coaxing them into a shape like a lemon and maximizing the quantity of the flesh by carefully adjusting the depth and salinity of the water. The company tries to keep its oysters from clumping together, putting 135 to 150 oysters in each of the thick plastic-screening sacks that can hold 1,000.