Farming bouchot mussels in Mont-Saint-Michel bay

Mont-Saint-Michel bay AOP mussels: from bouchot to plate

With the weather as scorching as it currently is, there are two good reasons for everyone to want to head down to the shores of Mont-Saint-Michel bay. First, this cooler spot is the ideal place to clear your head. Second, the bouchot mussels farmed here are a delight for the taste buds.  Here we go: the Mont-Saint-Michel bay AOP bouchot mussel season has begun !

Published  August 1, 2019

But what actually is a “bouchot”?

When you talk about bouchot mussels, you are referring to a type of farming. The mussels are grown on wooden stakes (known as “bouchots” in French) erected in the foreshore seabed (coastal area between the highest and lowest points reached by the water). Growing mussels on bouchots over a year means you can:

  • avoid contact with the ground;
  • combat parasitism. 

The changing water level caused by the tides gives the mussels a slightly salty flavour.  

How are bouchot mussels grown at Mont-Saint-Michel?

Collecting and growing spat on ropes

Before ending up in a white-wine sauce, cream, curry or being paired with Roquefort or anything else a chef might dream up, Mont-Saint-Michel bay AOP (Protected Designation of Origin) bouchot mussels will have already existed for a year. Having been collected from the coast at Oléron, Noirmoutier, Charron, La Plaine-sur-Mer or Pénestin, the mussel spat are delivered on ropes from the end of April to the end of June. Why are these mussels grown in Mont-Saint-Michel bay? The answer is the environment. The bay is a mussel El Dorado with a vast foreshore and water that is the right temperature and rich in microorganisms.

Winding spat-sown rope onto bouchots, growth and harvesting

Mussels ropes are fully rolled out at the top of the foreshore before being cut into 3.5 m lengths and wound onto bouchots in June and July. From July, harvesting can begin on the bouchots sown with spat the previous year.

A mussel producer in the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel laying his ropes on wooden stakes called bouchots.

 © AOP committee for the bouchot mussel of the bay of Mont Saint-Michel

AOP mussel history and specifications

To be classed as AOP, Mont-Saint-Michel bouchot mussels must meet stringent criteria:

  • Four fifths of the batch must be 4 cm in size;
  • Minimum 25% flesh content.

These requirements were seen as so challenging by the bay's mussel farmers who had begun the process of gaining Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC: another quality mark) status in the 1990s that they eventually backpedalled a few days before the status was officially agreed by the French National Institute of Appellations of Origin because they were frightened of shooting themselves in the...bouchot.

The AOC mark process was restarted at the start of the 2000s, before the status was finally achieved in 2006 and converted into an AOP mark five years later.

And since then? Almost all the bay's mussel farmers have joined the movement. Last season (July 2018 to January 2019), Mont Saint-Michel mussel farmers produced 89% of the 11,900 tonnes of AOP bouchot mussels. Not bad !

View of Mont Saint-Michel bay at low tide and mussel farming on wooden stakes.

 © AOP committee for the bouchot mussel of the bay of Mont Saint-Michel

The AOP mark: proving quality outside France

Famous outside France, Mont-Saint-Michel bay AOP bouchot mussels also owe their reputation to the stringent checks they undergo. Once the season has officially begun, an organoleptic committee of professionals, consumers and quality technicians does a tasting every fortnight: “It's an extremely serious and complex business with sheets to fill in,” explains Éric Hodbert, AOP committee president and one in a long line of mussel farmers in his family.

Guided by immutable specifications, each year Mont-Saint-Michel bay mussel farmers comply with strict guidelines. Depending on the sector, no more than 55% to 65% of bouchot stakes can be sown with spat. Everything is checked annually by an agent authorised by Certipak, the certification body responsible for drawing up the control plan (an official document created from the specifications). It is the agent’s job to individually count some of the 270,000 bouchot stakes erected in the bay. To guarantee this sought-after living product is absolutely fresh, mussel farmers ensure full traceability and commit to their mussels not spending any longer than eight days in reserve (at the top of the foreshore) and seven days in the basin “knowing that the two combined should not exceed ten days” before being packed and shipped.

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