Sylvain Huchette - France Haliotis

" Élever l'ormeau dans son environnement naturel s'est révélé incroyablement plus complexe que je ne l'imaginais. Il a fallu un gros travail d'équipe et beaucoup de recherche et de mises au point techniques pour réussir l'aventure. Par contre, après toutes ces années, le résultat est drôlement savoureux! Et je suis toujours ravi de pouvoir le partager. "

- Sylvain Huchette

Sylvain Huchette is a remarkable man. With a PhD in abalone studies from the University of Melbourne and an intense passion for environmental conservation, it is immediately clear that he has constructed an exceptional abalone farm: France Haliotis.

Situated in the Finistere, the most north-western province of the Bretagne, France Haliotis is one of only two abalone farms in France. Sylvain has dedicated his organic abalone farm to both production and research, resulting in a unique space for educational opportunities and daily implementation of new techniques.

After working in abalone farms in Australia, Sylvain knew early on in his career that he wanted his farm to be above and beyond the norm. Instead of feeding his abalone with fish meal, soy proteins, or agglomerated algae, which has been harvested with large spiral drills that rip algae off the bottom of the ocean, Sylvain and his associate, Xavier, harvest each variety of algae when it is in prime season by hand. In addition, France Haliotis has always insisted that their abalone be allowed to grow in the hardy, cold waters of the Finistere, and never live their entire lifespan on land in tanks, which is how many abalone farms construct their production centers. All of these techniques, and many more painstakingly detailed operations, contribute to the possibility to claim that their abalone are organic.  

We met Sylvain and his associate, Frédéric, at the Taste of Paris 2017 salon. Frédéric was sautéeing a large pan of abalone in salted Breton butter and we fell head-over-heels for smell, texture and taste. The preparation was so simple and elegant; we followed Sylvain around the stand as he passed out the sautéed abalone to visitors and would reach to the plate to discreetly pinch another morsel. After dosing ourselves with much more than our fair share of the delicable creatures, Stephane Gabrielly introduced us to Sylvain and Frédéric. Their warmth and passion was evident and so I kept their business card safely in my pocket.

When we contacted France Haliotis many months later, the whole team quickly responded to welcome us. Admittedly, they didn’t remember who we were, there were a lot of moochers at the salon eating their abalone, but they were excited about our project and open to letting us get our hands dirty.

The first day, we arrived early in the morning and Sylvain immediately set us up with bright yellow slickers before we plunged into sorting the abalone that had been harvested the night before. The abalone are raised on a series of conical shaped disks, which are secured into large plastic crates, four looped together at a time, and settled onto the bottom of the nearby bay. As Sylvain opened each crate, we discovered a cornucopia of incredible sea creatures that we had never seen before; not only were there the beautifully stripped abalone but curious crabs that looked like seaweed (naxia tumida), tiny bouquet prawns, spindly starfish, guppies, and slippery butterfish.

After prying the abalone off their disks with small spatulas (if you can imagine a how a snail attaches themselves with their suction to a rock but with a force ten times greater), we placed them into a calibrating machine where they were then gently dropped into baskets to be moved to their categorised bassins, where Frédéric would eventually chose them to be sent to Michelin-starred chefs and grand hotels across the world.

Sylvain then asked me to join his biology apprentice in the nursery, while Eric would help Xavier with repairs. The apprentice would be cleaning the baby’s tanks. “Cute,” I thought and was initially very pleased to be in a warm, covered area. The apprentice taught me to siphon, which is a super handy skill to possess, in order to suck the murky algae off the bottom of the tanks, so the baby abalone could have fresh, clean tanks. She made siphoning the seawater look rather easy. I gave it a go and stuck one end of the tube into the tank, looped the tube through my legs, and set the other end into a crate to filter the water. After five minutes of inhaling air through the tube, I finally managed to create a vacuum and get the seawater to filter through the tube, of course inhaling a huge quantity of seawater and algae! With a mouth full of dead seaweed and salty water, I coughed and sputtered. The apprentice laughed and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. Siphoning took me about two weeks to learn.” Not such a cute task, after all.

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After about an hour of moving the baby’s racks out of the water and siphoning the tanks, a job that takes a lot of abdominal strength, Eric came to tell us that we would have a lunch break. My back was starting to ache and I was pretty sure that my entire face was covered in dead algae, so lunch was very welcome! After lunch, we went back to siphoning for another two hours or so. At the end of the day, Sylvain asked Eric and I if we would be interested in going out to sea with him the next morning. We were very keen to see the algae harvesting and get to feed the adult abalone in the open waters. Sylvain warned us about being seasick and we both chimed in with positive affirmations of our belly’s strong constitutions. “We’ll be fine! Eric’s worked on a boat and I love sailing.”

The next morning, we met Sylvain bright and early to drive to the docks. As Sylvain and Eric rowed to the fishing boat, I waited on the misty bank with Xavier and all the equipment. The water was a deep blue, calm, and inviting. As we jumped onto the boat and took off across the bay towards the open sea, the water became increasingly grey and tumultuous. We hugged the boat’s cabin, as the waves tossed the boat around, and Eric’s stomach began to turn.

Sylvain and Xavier steered us towards a barren island and upon arrival, they slid their rectangular chrome boats into the water to harvest the dark olive green algae. Because you need to be certified and licensed to harvest the algae, Sylvain dropped us off on the island and instructed us to come back in three hours. Eric and I hoped that it would be a moment of respite for him to get his feet back on the ground and settle his tummy.

Climbing over the barren, rocky island, with nothing more than a bunch of seaweed from time to time, we fortified ourselves for the next few hours to come. What was a gentle mist turned into a persistent downpour and we walked for what seemed like kilometers, digging into the sand in hopes of finding cockles or clams. Once the three hours were up, we climbed back over the rocks to find Sylvain and Xavier with a boat full of ribbony algae. Sylvain hauled a dingy over to us and Eric rowed us back to the boat. As we climbed back into the boat, I saw his face turn pale green and knew that the poor guy was seasick.

As we were filling up the abalone crates with the fresh seaweed, Eric took a turn for the worse and desperately needed to sit down. Sylvain recommended that he lay on the deck, on top of the motor. The vibrations and the warmth helped lull him to sleep. After thirty minutes, I had to join him, as I, too, started to feel absolutely exhausted. The fresh air and the turbulent waters had gotten to me. Sylvain and Xavier graciously drove us back to land, as they knew we wouldn’t be capable of staying on the boat much longer. We had clearly been defeated by the ocean!

That evening, Sylvain invited us to dinner at his house with his family. He brought home a massive box full of abalone, which cost 75€ per kilogram, and showed us four different ways to cook them: Japanese style with a saké, soy, wakamé dashi, thinly sliced and raw, in tempura with freshly cut dill from their garden, and - our favorite - the Breton style sautéed in salted butter. We sautéed the bouquet shrimps to make a shrimp butter out of the bright orange crustaceans and quickly steamed the clams we had foraged on the deserted beach. We quickly understood why abalone are called the truffles of the sea.

- Lise 

Retour en Bretagne pour rencontrer Sylvain Huchette, titulaire d’un doctorat en biologie marine de l’université de Melbourne et producteur d’ormeaux.

C ‘est la rencontre avec un écologiste marin qui a déclenché la passion de Sylvain pour ce mollusque.

Au prix d’une longue recherche et de beaucoup de travail, il a créer un centre de l’étude de l’ormeaux et un élevage bio, en eau ouverte. 

Les petits ormeaux sont élevés dans une pouponnière entourés de beaucoup de soins et d’attention pendant un an, puis ils rejoignent la mer pendant pour environ trois ans.

Ils sont nourris tous les mois avec des algues fraichement coupées par Sylvain et son second Xavier. Bio et du locale s’il vous plait !

Notre première tâche est de trier les ormeaux pour les commandes du jour. Sylvain ne les prélève qu’à la demande. En jetant un rapide coup d’œil, je peux voir que Sylvain fournit de prestigieuses maisons, des chefs et des particuliers.

Il faut décoller les mollusques de leur abri, délicatement mais fermement !

« Il faut prendre l’ormeaux par surprise » SH

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Une calibreuse se charge de les répartir dans les différents paniers

Les commandes terminées, Lise rejoint la stagiaire en biologie pour le contrôle et l’entretient quotidien des bassins et je rejoints Xavier afin de préparer notre sortie en mer du lendemain.

Au réveil nous partons rapidement sur le bateau pour récolter des algues, la marrée n’attend pas !

L’ancre à peine jetée, sylvain et Xavier se munissent d’une serpe et sautent dans l’eau. La récolte va bon train ! Comme elle nécessite un permis Lise et moi observons tout en glanant quelques coquillages pour le diner. 

Retour sur le bateau, direction les parcs à ormeaux !

Heureusement que les pauvres mollusques n’attendent pas après moi pour manger car… a peine remonté à bord la mal de mer s’invite! Je pars donc m’allonger à l’avant du bateau pendant que Lise qui n’a pour le moment pas perdu sa dignité elle ( !) continue de remplir les casiers à grandes brassées.

Solidaire, elle me rejoint cependant rapidement, obligeant Sylvain et Xavier à nous débarquer, à mon grand soulagement !

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Cela n’empêche pas Sylvain de nous inviter à diner avec sa famille. Et quel diner !

Il nous apprend à lever les ormeaux, puis nous donne une grande leçon de cuisine. Sylvain enchaîne les recettes tout en nous apprenant 1000 choses sur son métier, sa passion, l’environnement.

Ormeaux en carpaccio, cuits dans un bouillon japonais, en tempura ou juste au beurre (à  la bretonne, ma favorite), nous nous sommes régalés !

Une rencontre formidable avec un passionné exigeant et respectueux de son produit et du milieu marin.

Sylvain fournit de prestigieuses maisons, des chefs, mais également des particuliers. Alors foncez sur le site de France Haliotis

- Eric 

Lise Kvan