Picking a funky name for an oyster to attract diners’ attention – here’s looking at you, Naked Cowboy – is nothing new. But investing close to five million euros (S$7.6 million) in laser technology and machines to stamp an oyster is.
That is what French oyster company Gillardeau is doing to counter molluscs making their rounds around the globe using its name. The French family-run company has been farming oysters for over 100 years.
It was during the Christmas season three years back that fourth- generation owners Thierry and Veronique Gillardeau discovered oysters farmed in New Zealand were being passed off as Gillardeau in parts of Europe, Dubai, Jakarta and China.
A genuine Gillardeau oyster should have “a full shell, a pristine white lining, and taste like sugar and salt together”, says Veronique. “I realised something was wrong when we started receiving fewer orders from customers, especially over Christmas when demand is usually very high.”
She estimates that the company sells nearly 2,000 tonnes a year. France produces about 130,000 tonnes annually, though recent years have seen production dip to 80,000 tonnes, due to changes in natural conditions. The country’s output makes up nearly 90 per cent of oyster production in Europe.
To counter the problem, the Gillardeaus invented the process of branding their oysters by putting the company’s logo on the shells. “The first idea was to put a microchip in the oyster flesh, but that didn’t work,” says Veronique, who adds that the lasering does not affect the taste of the oyster.
The first batch to have their shells branded with the letter “G” within a circle was produced in late 2014. It takes only a second to laser four shells, making it easy for the company to mark all its oysters this way. They are quickly packed and sent off by 120 ready staff. Given the mileage Gillardeau gets from its branding exercise, the investment in the laser technology was a worthwhile one.
“We put a lot of effort into controlling the level of bacteria in our oysters, and we can’t stand copies that might result in health problems, when other people don’t check their products,” says Veronique.
“It was not just our reputation in danger, but also our clients’,” she continues. “When suppliers put a price tag on the wrong products, it becomes a problem for them too.”
In March 2009, former editor of Boston website Daily Candy Erin Byers Murray traded in her laptop to trawl about in mud. “The saltwater air hit me hard and fast,” reads a line in her book Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm. The hardest part was keeping up physically with the rest of the crew. “My muscles screamed,” wrote the urbanite. “I was a wreck from all the standing, lifting and constant motion.”
Murray’s vivid account is just the tip of the iceberg. Growing an oyster takes years, starting from spat cultivation in carefully controlled conditions to point of harvest. A Gillardeau takes five years. The company cultivates its crop in different bays scattered around Portugal, Spain and Ireland, before allowing the molluscs to mature under controlled salinity and temperatures at its sites near La Rochelle and Ile d’Oleron in France’s west coast.
“Being in the business for so long, we know the peak season of oysters in Portugal or Ireland. If the waters and conditions in Ireland are not so good one year, we can move the oysters there to Portugal,” says Veronique.
The care that goes into the cultivation of Gillardeau oysters is what earned them the reputation of being the Hermes equivalent among molluscs. The flesh of a Gillardeau “speciale” is plump and sweet, with a tinge of salinity that comes from the properties of the basins used to store the oysters in their final stage of maturity.
The price of one at Greenwood Fish Market and Bistro here is $8, twice that of other oysters on the menu like the French fine de claires and Australia’s Coffin Bay.
“The Gillardeau oysters are sold at that price, due to their base cost being higher than that other oysters,” says Alan Lee, Greenwood’s chef- owner. “It is an additional cost for the company to conduct quality checks and brand its products, which would translate to end-consumer cost.”
To be sure, demand for the prized barnacles has been steadily increasing. According to a report by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore, Singapore imported 858 tonnes of live oysters in 2014, a marked increase from just 469 tonnes in 2007. And diners today are more attuned to the differences in oyster brands.
“Diners now are very educated and have travelled a lot,” says Polo Seah, head chef of the Humpback oyster bar in Bukit Pasoh Road. “We often get asked if we carry certain brands, like Kumamoto from Japan.”
It’s no wonder then that certain suppliers and restaurants have been quick to capitalise on an established name like Gillardeau to score a quick buck.
Here in Singapore, the measures taken by Gillardeau to brand its oysters sit well with premium food supplier Indoguna. “It is good to identify the brand or farm of oysters, so suppliers know for sure what we are getting,” says a spokesman for the brand. “It’s not just about the name. It’s about building trust in the relationship too.”
Says Lee: “The etching on every shell is an assurance to us as restaurateurs of their quality. It makes us confident that each Gillardeau oyster we get is of top quality, which will translate to our food consistency.”
But for Indra Kantono, owner of Humpback, being assured of brand authenticity isn’t enough. “It is important for consumers to not just look at the brand name, but to really discover and understand the provenance – how the oysters are grown, the methods used, and the care that the farmers put in when growing these oysters,” says Kantono.
Michelle Mok, owner of local oyster farm Sea Farmers @ Ubin, agrees. “I think (putting the logo on the oysters) is a nice move by Gillardeau. But branding is not just about using a laser to mark your oysters, it’s about what you promise as a brand to your customers and living up to that,” says Mok.
Sea Farmers produces about 10,000 oysters monthly, and supplies high-end restaurant The Black Swan here.
Ultimately, Kantono and Mok advocate the power of knowledge.
“We want to know which bay of water the oysters come from, the growing method, and the people who grow them,” says Kantono.
“More than just a branded oyster, what we want to deliver is the story of the growers and a guaranteed assurance of the product that we can vouch for.”
The mark of a quality oyster is a hard shell that won’t chip when shucked, and plump flesh. We examine different farming methods and oysters produced from each.
01 Beach-grown Of all methods, growing oysters on sandy bays takes the longest time to bear fruit, but produces the best-tasting flesh. The baby oysters are protected from predators like crabs and birds by fenced-up pens, and subjected to strong winds and crashing waves that cause the bivalves to clamp down tight in reaction. The rock- solid shells and robust meaty flesh at the end of four to five years is an oyster fan’s dream.
02 Bag-to-beach Pampering and tough love are dealt out in equal measure here. Oyster spat is placed in mesh bags along the beach. These protect them from predators, as well as bad weather conditions for near three years. The molluscs are then taken out of the bags and left to harden on the beach for another three to four months before harvest.
03 Suspension-culture Oysters grown by the suspended bag or basket method inevitably have thin, brittle shells as they have been cosseted in lantern-like containers in deep waters, protected from weather elements and predators all their lives. Of the three methods, this yields the quickest results, turning out deep-cupped oysters with light sweet flesh in two years.