Born in the centre of the Manche department, Francis Hélie came from a family of farmers, with an innate passion for cultivating oysters or fruit trees.
After the 2nd World War (1944), Francis joined the Leclerc 2nd Armoured Division. First taking part in operations in France, he then followed Leclerc to Indochina in 1947, before being repatriated wounded.
After a long convalescence in the Black Forest (Germany), he decided to go and live on Chausey (an archipelago of 52 small islands in the Channel off the coast of Granville, this being the only French Channel Island, the Anglo-Saxon cousins are Jersey, Guernsey and Sark), where one of his sisters lived.
At Chausey, he discovered magnificent sites suitable for oyster production. Chausey, which lies within the Mont Saint Michel bay, is already a natural bed for horse’s hoof oysters and Francis Hélie decided to create his first oyster farming company La Chausiaise here.
While Chausey is a favourable oyster-growing site, it suffered from a major disadvantage in the fifties related to logistics: transport is by boat only, and not every day.
Francis started to look for another oyster farming site in the Manche department. He discovered the bays of St Vaast La Hougue, located in the Cotentin peninsula (east of Cherbourg). The Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue basin is an ancient French oyster farming site where the oysters captured at sea are distributed flat on the beds of the oyster farms.
The Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue basin consists of 2 bays: Coulège and Cul de Loup. These 2 bays were the scene of the famous la Hougue battle led by Admiral Tourville for king Louis XIV of France.
After this battle, the king of France asked Vauban (Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban) to build 2 military forts consisting of 2 towers, one on Tatihou island (Coulège), and the other on the Hougue peninsula (Cul de Loup). These towers are now UNESCO world heritage monuments.
At the same time as he found this incredible site, Francis met his future wife Madeleine, during mass at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue church. They were married in 1955 in Chausey chapel.
The company Huîtres Hélie at St Vaast was born.
At the beginning, the company’s breeding methods were quite rudimentary: the breeding methods were taken from the period of fishing and distributing the oysters, with transport by horse.
The main species bred at the time was the flat oyster. The company started to prosper but suffered a major setback: the bitter winter of 1962. The sea froze and virtually the entire stock of oysters was killed off by the extreme cold. Francis and Mado had to start again from scratch.
They then turned to breeding the hollow oyster, which was also known at the time as the Portuguese oyster. Gradually during the 70s the flat oyster was replaced by the hollow oyster, especially since the flat oyster was attacked by a virus, effectively wiping it out along the French coasts.
At the same time as he was reorganising his farm to breed the Portuguese oyster, Francis Hélie invented a new system for breeding these hollow oysters: from flat farming on the sea bed, he developed rack and bag farming.
Initially, Francis obtained army surplus beds. The oysters are placed and grow in plastic bags on the beds: modern oyster farming was born.
Oyster farming improved over the years and, instead of using beds, oyster tables were developed and the oyster bags also modified (at St Vaast, older people still speak of beds and not tables).
This is why Francis Hélie has always been considered and recognised as a pioneer in the modern production of flat oysters.
Alongside this turmoil of ideas to improve the production, Francis and Mado never stopped promoting the St Vaast oyster by shipping their entire production and by participating for several decades in international fairs (Brussels, Cologne, Berlin, etc.).
From 1972, the Portuguese oyster suffered an epidemic and was decimated. It disappeared completely from the French coasts. French oyster farmers started looking for a new strain of hollow oysters. In Canada and in Japan they found a new species, ostrea gigas, which was introduced into the French oyster farms and known as the Japanese oyster.
In 1975, their son Michel, current company manager, started with his parents. The company changed name to F. Hélie et Fils, a French EARL (farm with limited liability), with an annual production of 300 tonnes of oysters.
During the 80s and 90s, the company underwent considerable modernisation and currently produces up to 800 tonnes per year. It became a leading French oyster farming company, renowned for the quality of its production and shipment.
It continues to promote the Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue oyster with its special hazelnut taste.
Thanks to these efforts and its work, the company was awarded the Gold Medal at the Paris agriculture show in 2000.
A few years later in 2001, Francis and Mado retired. In 2002, their second son Thierry decided to work with his brother Michel. The company then shipped about 1000 tonnes per year.
Together they continued to develop the company and, in 2005, bought two shops known as Huîtres Lesdos to sell oysters to the public, one on the port of Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue and the other in Cherbourg town centre. See the Shops header. .
In 2008, over 80 % of the juveniles (from the spat to 18 months old) of the current species of the “Japanese” hollow oyster were wiped out. Since then, every year the mortality rate of juvenile oysters is between 70 % and 95 %.
However, taking up a new challenge, the company is pleased to welcome the 3rd generation: Xavier.