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Charente-Maritime

With its Atlantic coastline, pretty seaside villages and unspoilt islands, the Charente-Maritime has been a long time favourite with those seeking sun, sea and sand. But travel inland and the Romanesque architecture, cognac producing vineyards and gallo-roman remains will capture your imagination. Find out more about the attractions in the Charente-Maritime here.

We have gathered a number of our favourite features on the Charente-Maritime below...

 

A Feast of an Island - food producers on the Ile de Ré

A Feast of an Island - food producers on the Ile de Ré

Stretching lazily amid the Atlantic Ocean beyond the slender toll-bridge tail connecting it to the mainland, the Ile de Ré offers the perfect opportunity for indolent days of sunbathing and cycling, or fine dining... 


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The same gentle climate which encourages tourists to leave their everyday lives behind them and breathe in the wholesome island air also inspires vigorous growth for a multitude of different plants. The colourful markets throughout the island contain wooden stands weighed down with fresh, seasonal greengrocery labelled as Ré produce: asparagus, broad beans and the famous springtime potatoes give way to strawberries and tomatoes, followed in August by cherries and peaches.

Besides the fruit and vegetables, a wealth of seafood, jams and honey is on offer, not to mention the locally produced wines, beer, sea-salt products, biscuits, chocolate, cheese and ice-cream. The result is a feast for both our eyes and our palate, and a healthy harvest of natural food, leading us spontaneously to fill our picnic baskets. All that remains is to find the perfect picnic spot (see our list of the islanders’ own favourites), and we’re guaranteed an afternoon of relaxation and discovery.

Supplying this natural abundance is an army of local producers. Often they have tiny farms with unassuming buildings, and divide their time between looking after their produce and welcoming tourists to talk about their work and sell their wares directly. This modest reception contributes to the overall atmosphere of simplicity which still reigns on Ré, and makes forays into the island’s countryside so fulfilling.

This is certainly the case for Yvan Le Gall – you’d never guess that his low hangar at the end of a dirt track houses Europe’s only sea urchin farm! At L’Oursine de Ré, in the oyster zone of La Flotte, Yvan uses the methods developed by his father, a marine-biologist researcher, to breed this delicacy. “You eat the five coral tongues...” he explains, handing out live urchins and referring to the exhibition of photos on his office wall. Yvan also supplies recipes for his urchins (which can be bought fresh or as a bottled preserve). He suggests spreading the preserve on toast for an aperitif, although the Ré restaurants he supplies – La Baleine Bleue, Le Chat Botté and Le M – use the urchins as a base for certain recipes. Yvan has even created a special spread for “a well-known Parisian chef”.

Breeding sea urchins is a delicate task: “Many people in France have tried, but none have succeeded...” says Yvan, who also employs the family experience to reintroduce this endangered species to the wild. “I have bred 10,000 for the Brittany coast, and am now preparing 100,000 for Marseille.”Unfortunately, however, like many producers on the island, Yvan is still suffering the after effects of Cyclone Xynthia, which struck in spring 2010, and will have no fresh urchins to taste or sell until December. He does however, have a stock of preserves at his farm, in the Cabane des Sauniers in Ars, and at Leclerc in St.Martin.

Frédéric Voisin is another producer who was affected by Xynthia, though his production of oysters, clams, king prawns and salicornia (marsh samphire) at Loix recently received the coveted organic status (he is the first oyster farmer to do so). “Being organic has been my objective since I bought the farm ten years ago and passed my oyster-farming qualification...” he says, adding that this qualification is necessary to obtain a permit to farm oysters: “You can't simply hand down a farm from father to son”. In June and July you can buy his fresh salicornia – which he suggests consuming as a vegetable, in soup or as a condiment to replace gherkins – and he sells preserves all year round. His products can be found at his farm and at the markets of Ars, Les Portes and Saint-Martin. He also supplies Ré restaurants such as La Terrasse and le Carré d’Ars.

For seafood aficionados, one of the best places to enjoy oysters is with Didier at Ré Ostréa – a stand near Saint-Martin where you can eat standing-up, with beautiful views out to sea. Recommending this location is Xavier Cathala, owner of La Martinière ice-cream parlours. There’s no doubt that La Martinière is Ré’s number one reference, with rich, creamy flavours (from the traditional chocolate, vanilla and strawberry through 33 creations to the original Camembert-cherry and oyster-caviar variants) all created right here on the island. Xavier is a native of Ré: “Our family business was launched by my parents in 1970, when there were very few tourists.” Given the current popularity of the island, it’s difficult to imagine that in those days a house here cost next to nothing, and that the owner would almost throw in the neighbouring house if it meant making a sale. “You could say I'm the Obélix of ice-cream, having fallen into it when I was very young!”, jokes Xavier, who likes to involve his employees in the family spirit which makes this business so special.

In addition to ice-creams La Martinière has a reputation for high quality patisserie: an outlet in La Flotte specialises in these delicious iced desserts as well as classic ice-creams, while there are two branches in Saint-Martin. Xavier spends his time moving from one parlour to another, beginning with the early shift at 6am in Saint-Martin and then helping out in La Flotte, dealing with the heavy summer traffic in a typical Ré way: “I have a fold-up bicycle in my car, so I drive along the main road between Saint-Martin and La Flotte, then I park and cycle the rest of the way to the village centres.”

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Although Xavier can’t source all his ingredients on the island, the milk comes from Deux-Sèvres and most fruit (with the exception of exotic varieties) comes from the market in La Rochelle, where his team sources the best produce at full maturity. He uses Ré ingredients where he can – such as goat cheese from Cathérine Lefort in Loix and strawberries from Bruno Knevez in Bois-Plage. “Bruno is someone who takes care of his strawberries, not because he wants to increase production but because he loves growing them...” says Xavier. Xavier’s father used to buy strawberries from Bruno’s father, and now both sons have taken over the family businesses. “Bruno also avoids using pesticides and artificial fertilizer,” adds Xavier.

Ré is a geographically-protected zone, with lots of wild areas and very little pollution, which is why Aude Chupin, a beekeeper in Rivedoux, believes the honey produced on Ré is so special. “The taste is very fruity and scented...” she says. In the spring her bees feed on wild mustard plants before moving onto blackberry flowers and the lucerne grown locally. She has hives all over the island and can be found at La Flotte market, while another honey producer – Aldo François of the Abeille de Ré is based in Loix.

Aldo, who can take you on a fascinating visit of his hives, is part of a particularly interesting network of six Ré producers who have produced a leaflet called Le Parcours Gourmand. They are united by their wish to show visitors the authenticity of their products, which are created on the island rather than just adding a Ré ingredient to a product and marketing it as local. As the members produce different goods and come from all over the island, following this circuit makes an interesting theme for a visit (see the box for a list of participants).

“We all offer direct sales from our farms as well as visits...” says Cathérine Lefort, another member of this network, and Ré’s only goat cheese producer. With their 150 goats, Cathérine and Richard have been producing eleven varieties of cheese in Loix since 1984; their products range from fresh to dry cheese, with flavoured variations including fennel, Espelette chilli and, of course, local ‘fleur de sel’. Present at the Bois-Plage, Ars and Les Portes markets, they also welcome visitors – their farm shop is open in the morning. Alternatively, if you arrive between 5:30pm and 7:30pm you’ll be able to treat your children to seeing the goats being milked.

You can’t visit Ré without noticing the expanses of salt marshes at the western end; the salt and its by-products are sold in many of the island’s markets and boutiques. Most salt producers belong to the Les Sauniers de l’Ile de Ré cooperative, which has a shop in Ars – but some are independent and can be visited.

This is the case for James Renou at Le Comptoir des Pertuis, who has his ‘Boutik’ in Sainte-Marie. He and his partner were in show business until the late nineties, when they bought a plot of salt marsh from a friend they used to visit on the island. “We love cooking and mixing different ingredients to make products that retain flavours from the old days, and which are different to those you can buy in the co-op...” says James. His ‘Crème de Caramel à la Fleur de Sel’ comes from his grandmother’s recipe, alongside which he offers an intriguing range of salt and spice mixes. Traditional ‘fleur de sel’ refers to the top layer of salt which is scraped off before the salt sinks to the bottom of the salt pans. You’ll find his salt at La Noue and Sainte-Marie markets, too.

So, your picnic basket is full of fresh goodies, and all that remains is to pick up a bottle of the local wine or beer. All the island’s grapes are taken to the wine cooperative, a huge, white building at Bois Plage called Le Cellier des Vignerons, where pressing and distillation take place to create the range of wines, pineau and cognac (which you can taste and buy here). And if you prefer beer, you can even buy a local range that is brewed nearby in Sainte-Marie and sold in shops, bars and restaurants throughout the island.

So, whether you come to meet the local producers and sample their tasty island goodies, or simply to relax on a beach with a picnic, there’s no doubt that the flavours of Ré will linger on your palate long after you return to the mainland.

 

Getting to the Ile de Ré

A 3km toll bridge connects the island to the mainland. Free for pedestrians and bikes. You can also catch a bus from La Rochelle train station to all the Ré villages. www.lesmouettes-transport.com, 08 11 36 17 17

 

LPC ile de re-3216Le Parcours Gourmand producers

Abeille de Ré: 15 Chemin du Corps de Garde, Loix. 05 46 31 06 63

Les Confitures du Clocher: 1 chemin des Palissiats, Ars. 05 46 29 41 35, www.les-confitures-du-clocher.com

Ile de Ré Chocolats: 15 ave de Philippsburg, Saint-Martin. 05 46 09 22 09, www.ildere-chocolats.com 

Bières de Ré: 11 Zac les Clemorinants,

La Noue, Sainte-Marie. 05 46 43 82 63, www.bieresdere.fr 

Biscuiterie de l’Ile de Ré: Zac les Clemorinants, La Noue, Sainte-Marie. 05 46 43 89 06, www.biscuiteriedere.fr 

Fromagerie Chevrerie Lefort: Chemin du Corps de Garde, Loix. 05 46 29 04 11, www.fromagerie-chevrerie-lefort.com 

 

Producer details

L’Oursine de Ré: Yvan Le Gall, Zone Ostréicole du Petit Préau, La Flotte. 06 79 98 17 33, www.loursinedere.fr 

La Cabane des Sauniers (salt): 7 route de la Prée, Ars. 05 46 29 40 27

Frédéric Voisin: Le Grouin, Loix. 05 46 43 51 38

La Martinière: 3 outlets: 17-19 Quai de la Poithevinière, Saint-Martin; 12 rue de Sully, Saint-Martin; 8 Quai de Senac, La Flotte. 05 46 09 20 99, www.la-martinière.fr 

Ré Ostréa: Le Vert Clos, Saint-Martin. 06 63 91 80 19

Aude Chupin: 17 rue de la Fontaine, Rivedoux-Plage. 05 16 85 45 18

Le Comptoir des Pertuis: La Boutik, 4 rue des Alouettes, Saint-Marie. www.lecomptoirdespertuis.com 

Le Cellier des vignerons de l’Ile de Ré (wine co-op): Le-Bois-Plage. 05 46 09 23 09, www.vigneronsiledere.com 

 

Local product delicatessens

Le 1 Bis: 1bis rue du Havre, Ars-en-Ré. 05 46 37 56 90, www.boutique-iledere.com 

Le Moulin du Puits Salé, 3 cours Bailly des Ecotais, Saint-Martin. 05 46 67 87 56, www.le-moulin-du-puits-sale.com 

 

Top Picnic Spots

* The Pointe du Lizay, being rocky, is completely different from the rest of the island. Known locally as the “Little Casa Blanca”, it’s a great place to picnic.

* If you want to picnic on the beach, but away from the crowds, take one of the little paths between the Plage des Grenettes and the Plage de Gros Jonc (between Sainte- Marie and Bois Plage). It’s at its best at high tide and is suitable for children. For an agreeable low-tide beach picnic, you’ll be better off at the Conche des Baleines, near Les Portes.

* Another great picnic favourite is the Plage des Prises, near La Couarde. At the end of the beach you can climb the dune (yes, it’s permitted here) and discover picnic tables at the top, where there’s a good view of the distinctive black-and-white Ars church spire.

* Between the Abbaye des Châteliers and the Fort de la Prée, near La Flotte, is a wild area with views of the sea, which makes a pleasant picnic area (although there’s little shade).

* For an evening picnic and bike ride, the passage along the dike between La Couarde and Loix port is a must at sunset or at low tide. There’s a magnificent 2km view over the mud flats – sometimes they reflect light like a mirror, while at other times they’re so green with seaweed that they seem like a perfect lawn.

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes in 2012  © All rights reserved

WORDS: TERESA HARDY  PHOTOS: ROGER MOSS