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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...

 

Papin oysters - Yves a Jolly good fellow

Papin oysters - Yves a Jolly good fellow

Wide blue skies look down upon a strange landscape on the coastline opposite the Ile d'Oléron. The huge expanse of flat land is populated by hundreds of colourful wooden huts hugging the sides of water channels. This is Marennes- Oléron, the biggest oyster-farming area in France, and the home of Yves Papin 

‘He was a brave man that first ate an oyster’ Jonathan Swift is quoted as saying. And many British people agree. How can anybody enjoy the slippery sensation of raw salty oyster sliding down their throats? Yet there was a time when the English ate more raw oysters than the French.

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Nowadays, oysters are a traditional French dish, and, as long as there's an ‘r’ in the month, you'll find oysters in every market and on most restaurant menus. If you're lucky, they'll be oysters bred by Yves Papin who is reputed to be the producer of the best oysters in France. So what makes Yves Papin's oysters special?

Quality, quality, quality

'It's the quality of our oyster parks.' say Yves and his daughter Emmanuelle, when I ask them the question. With his weather beaten face, welcoming smile and fascinating anecdotes. Yves is passionate about oysters. I suspect there's more to his success than oyster beds and water.

Yves' grandfather launched their family business in 1902, when ostreiculture was only fifty years old. The arrival of the railways had already turned oyster farming from a local leisure activity into an industry, allowing farmers to send their produce all over France. Yves’ grandfather loved the coast and would fish for wild mussels, sending them on the 5pm train across the Medoc to Bordeaux each evening. So when the opportunity came to buy a park, he took the plunge and became one of the three hundred oyster farmers in Marennes-Oléron at the time. Today, there are between one and two thousand farms: in the sixties, before economical needs led to farm mergers, there were over six thousand.

Yves takes after his grandfather in his love for the coast, and started working in the business with his father at the age of fourteen. Now that he's retiring, Emmanuelle and her partner Thierry Poget are taking charge. Yves, however, is around most days, either out on his boat surveying his oysters or in his hut chatting to customers. He still gets up at half past three in the morning to take his oysters to Angoulême market on Saturdays, where the Papins have had the same stall for 45 years.

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Methods

Oyster farming methods have evolved since his grandfather's time, partly because oyster breeds have changed three times and the farmers have had to constantly readapt. At the beginning of the 20th century, the native flat oysters were cultivated, each one laid individually on the bottom of the oyster bed. Then, during his father's time, a disease in 1920 killed the native oysters, and Portuguese oysters, accidentally introduced to the area when a sack of them were thrown overboard in 1868, were grown in their place.

Yves himself was in charge when another illness in 1970 massacred the Portuguese oysters; a Japanese race of hollow oysters was flown over from Canada to replace them. These hollow oysters proved to be resistant to epidemics, and are those we eat today. The work is also less intensive nowadays. Wading boots have replaced the wooden clogs lined with straw that the oyster farmers wore in the water, with thick socks: sailing boats by motorboats; and the oysters are kept in sacks instead of being handled individually. As we enjoy the sun and heavily salted air in the tranquillity of the port, it's difficult to imagine a disagreeable side to the job. Emmanuelle reminds us, however, that it's not always fun having to immerse your arms in cold water during the winter months. This doesn't bother Yves so much; it's the annual drying-out and cleaning of the water basins that he dislikes. His favourite part is looking after his oysters and minimising the stress they can suffer from the weather, the water salinity and the change of seasons.

Future plans

We talk of the future, about the effects of global warming and climatic changes on oyster production. For the moment, Yves and Emmanuelle haven't noticed any changes, though the hot summer of 2003 resulted in a high production. Many farmers are spreading to other parts of France so that they won't lose everything in the case of an environmental disaster, and the practice of deep-sea oyster farming is starting to grow.

What, then, besides his oyster beds, gives Yves his reputation? Perhaps it's also due to the fact that the Papins, unlike many of the oyster-farmers in the Marennes-Oléron basin, don't collect the seed oysters that are so prolific in these waters. The collection is a delicate operation, and rather than risking the quality of his production, he buys his oysters at 18 months old.

Road trip

Although Marennes-Oléron is distinguished from other oyster producing regions by the high quantities of seed oysters in the sea, this very advantage can be a problem as seed oysters cling to growing oysters and prevent them from developing to their full potential. Yves neatly avoids this problem by the practice of transhumance. Transhumance? Like sheep in the mountains? He nods and laughs. He takes them on holiday to the Normandy coast for six months so that they can feed on the rich plankton resources there and avoid the seed oysters, which are unable to live in the English Channel.

I'm starting to understand why Yves Papin is an oyster reference, and the speciale that I'm given to try is delicious. I chew it, as advised by Emmanuelle, while she tells me that her favourite way of eating oysters is cooked and served on a bed of leeks, carrots and creme fraîche. Yves prefers them raw with garlic and parsley butter. Neither of them likes to accompany the oysters with bread and pate, which is the traditional Poitou-Charentes way of eating them, though a glass of wine is essential. They advise a dry white wine such as Sancerre or Entre-Deux Mers with fleshy oysters, like the speciales, and a Sauvignon or Muscadet with the claires. For special occasions, champagne is a must!

Oyster Facts

The Marennes-Oléron range:

La fine de Claires – best for consumers who like less fleshy oysters.

La special de Claires – specially chosen by the oyster-farmer for its regular shape, its flesh is firmer than the fine de Claires.

La fine de Claire verte label rouge –of superior quality, with strict quality controls carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture.

La special pousse en Claire label rouge – the highest quality oyster, distinguished by the growth lines on its shell.

 

Grading

From 0 to 5, according to the mass of the flesh in the oyster. 5 are the smallest (30-45g) and 0 is the biggest (150g+)

Conservation

If stored between 2 and 8°C in a cool, aerated room, they will keep for 8-10 days.

If bought in a basket, leave them packed. If bought loose, cover them with a damp tea towel and place them rounded-side down.

Open them at the last minute.

Nutritional information

Oysters, along with other shellfish, fall into the same category as eggs, fish and tripe according to the vitamins, minerals and trace elements they contain. They are wholesome, have few calories and are particularly rich in folic acid.

Opening an oyster

Hold it firmly in your left hand (if you’re right-handed) with the heel of your little finger and the rounded shell underneath. Place the knife two-thirds of the way along from the heel. Ease the knife between the two shells y twisting the blade clockwise and anticlockwise. When the blade is 2-3cm inside the shell, cut the muscle with a to-and-fro movement of the blade. Lift up the shell, leaving he flesh inside the rounded bottom shell.

 

The Papin’s address book:

Sales outlets:

Yves Papin, La Route Neuve, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 3612 72

Poissonerie Elodie, 17390 La Tremblade

Angouleme Victor Hugo market - Saturday and Sunday mornings

Port Neuf market, La Rochelle – Thursday morning

Poissonerie Carnot, rue Carnal, Poitiers

Poissonerie Bourbon, rue Bourbon, Chatellerault

Les Capucins market, Bordeaux- Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings

Best Restaurants:

Le Brise Lames, 2 av Cèpe, Ronce-les-Bains, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 36 06 41

Casino de Ia Tremblade, 46 av Chaumière, Ronce-les-Bains, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 
46 76 88 86

Chez Roberte, bd Roger Letélié, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 36 12 90

Chez Gaby, bd Roger Letelie, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 36 01 47

L'escale Gourmande, r Corderie, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 47 50 38

Favourite Hotels:

La Mouniere **, 71 av du Général de Gaulle, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 36 0919

Phoebus **, 13 ter rue Foran, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 36 29 85

Best Beaches:

Le Galan d'Or, La Cèpe (only at high tide) and La Cote Sauvage (23km of beach) 17390 Ronce-les-Bains.

La Tremblade's Best Kept Secret:

The road known as 'La Grève' is beautiful at night, with lights reflecting off the water.

Tourist Information:

Tourist office at La Tremblade, 1 bd Pasteu r, BP 141, 17390 La Tremblade
+33 (0)5 46 36 37 71

Tourist office at Ronce-les-Bains, Place Brochard, BP 141, 17390 Ronce-les- Bains
+33 (0)5 46 36 06 02

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