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Oysters Shape Lives, Livelihoods In Arcachon Basin

: Oysters have been a popular summer delicacy in France since Roman times, and they're still relished in traditional oyster-producing spots like the village visited by Eleanor Beardsley.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Napoleon III developed the oyster industry along the Arcachon Basin in the mid-19th century. That's when the family of this oysterman came here.

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CLAUDE RAVELLO: (Through translator) I'm Claude Ravello. I'm 86 years old, and I'm in good health, probably because I have always eaten oysters. We raise and cultivate our oysters for four years, from birth to maturity, and we love our oysters just like a farmer loves his animals.

BEARDSLEY: There are still around 350 oysterman like Ravello in Arcachon, which produces 10,000 tons of oysters a year. Free-floating oyster larva attach themselves to the oysterman's ceramic plates out in the bay and begin to form shells. They're then put into metal mesh sacks, where they spend years growing and soaking in the flavors of the sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING)

BEARDSLEY: Down on the beach, third-generation oysterman Serge Castain(ph) is sorting and cleaning oysters heaped in large wooden crates.

SERGE CASTAIN: (Through translator) It's great to be an oysterman. You're free, and you work in nature. But there seem to be so many crises now. There's going to be more and more young people leaving this profession.

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BEARDSLEY: Both Ravello and Castain were born in the colorful wooden bungalows in the villages that lie among the pine trees along the Arcachon Basin. Now the bungalow beach towns are classified as national heritage sites.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

BEARDSLEY: In summer, children play in the narrow, sandy lanes separating the cabins, while over their heads, laundry flaps in the breeze. In some places, narrow rail tracks lead into the water, but the wooden rail carts that once hauled the oysters in from the sea now lie abandoned.

RAVELLO: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Parisian Stephan Marilee(ph) has brought his own platters to be filled with raw oysters on the half shell. He'll suck them down at lunchtime with lemon wedges and a bottle of chilled white wine. Marilee calls the Arcachon Basin a little corner of paradise.

STEPHAN MARILEE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: I've been coming here on vacation for 50 years, and I've always eaten oysters, he says. Oysters mean vacation.

(SOUNDBITE OF OYSTER OPENING)

BEARDSLEY: FRENCH SPOKEN

RAVELLO: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: It must be in the millions, says Ravello. And with that, he continues to shuck a few more. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in the village of Lukanau(ph), France.

MONTAGNE: (French spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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