- There is so much to see and so little time to see it in.
- A walk around the cobbled streets will show you what life must have been like in Cardinal Richelieu’s time.
- The French love their sailing, and it is interesting that the marinas here are full of masts rather than engines.
- If there is one thing that I love about France, it is the fresh food.
- There is a strong affinity with England in this part of France and it is a lovely place to visit.
The name says it all – a region of France where the maritime tradition runs deep. Simon Everett takes a look.
The west coast of France faces the might of the Atlantic and so a tradition of seamanship is only natural. There are several large rivers that flow into the sea along the west coast, which once provided valuable trading routes inland, and together with natural harbours and islands, this area of the French coast has an enviable maritime history.
This particular section is named after the mighty Charente, one of the great rivers of France, which brings nutrient-rich water into the estuary that is guarded by the Ile d’Oléron, forming a shallow sound between the island and the mainland and the river mouth. These vast shallows have been cultivated for oysters and mussels for centuries, and Oléron oysters are famed the world over for their size and succulent flavour, which is all due to the influence of the water from the River Charente interacting with the ocean currents of the Atlantic.
There are two main cities, Rochefort and La Rochelle. Rochefort, which sits on the banks of the Charente, was a naval base from 1665 right through to 1926 and the site of la Corderie Royale, boasting the longest rope walk in the world at 300m. The importance of rope making for the sailing vessels of a major navy cannot be overemphasised, and the museum traces the development of rope making through the ages. For anyone with an interest in the sea or boating it is well worth a visit, and together with the replica frigate Hermione on the same grounds, set in a dry dock beside the river, it makes a great trip out. Make a day of it and have lunch in the restaurant set within the colonnade of the museum, which serves wonderful home-made local fare.
La Rochelle is about 20 miles further up the coast, and the harbour is built around a natural inlet with two prominent towers guarding the old harbour. There has always been a rivalry between the two cities, La Rochelle being fiercely Catholic while Rochefort was protestant and supported the Revolution. It makes for interesting rivalry between the cities that has continued up to the present day.
The coastline was heavily guarded by a string of nine forts built to protect the approaches, including the imposing Fort Boyard, a granite island fort stood midway between the Ile d’Aix and the Ile d’Oléron. This massive oval fort is the production facility for the television programme of the same name – Fort Boyard: Ultimate Challenge. The programme is still filmed here and has virtually attained cult status. The fort is a useful navigational landmark when traversing the sound.
The oyster industry is a major player in the utilisation of the resources of the area, not to mention the employment situation. There are two methods of oyster production here. The more natural method is to put stakes out into the shallows and let nature take its course. This is a six- or seven-year cycle from staking to harvesting and the resulting oysters are variable. The more famous oysters from the Oléron production are cleansed in the pools that were dug by hand for salt production from Roman times. These pools began to be used for oyster growing over a century ago. The pool-finished oysters are much sweeter and meatier due to the conditions they are grown in and the high nutrient content of the water but without the silt.
To obtain the seed oysters, trees of plastic discs are placed into the sea and left for a couple of years. The oyster larvae attach themselves to the discs and are left to grow to about the size of your fingernail. These seed oysters are then taken off the discs, graded and placed in growing sacks on trestles in the tide. The sacks are turned every couple of weeks, which is a laborious and back-breaking task. It takes four or five years to grow the oysters to market size, at which point they are put into the pools to finish. The stocking density of the oysters and the length of time they are left in the pool determine the quality and marketing name applied to them.
Pousse en Claire is the top grade and has strict requirements for the finishing process. They require vast quantities of water, so can only be stocked at five oysters per square metre and have to stay in the clearing pools for a minimum of four months in order to earn the Pousse en Claire label. Being stocked so thinly increases the cost of production massively, and only a handful of artisan producers grow these oysters. As a premium product it finds a ready market with the most discerning clients all over the world, and it stands in pride of place within the Oléron oyster industry.
Fine de Claire is the next quality on the list, with the fully grown oysters being finished in the salt ponds for one month. The faster turnover allows a much greater throughput, yet the oysters still gain the creamy texture and finer flavour from the clearing pools. These oysters are harvested on an almost daily basis, with the pools being emptied and restocked in rotation. Such is the quantity of oysters produced that their shells are used as ‘chattering’ for making and repairing roadways across the marshes.
As a way of ensuring that the pools remain algae free, tiger prawns are used as natural cleaners. The prawns were introduced from Thailand about 30 years ago and are now bred for the purpose locally. The high density of phytoplankton in the water and warm temperature in the shallow pools provide an ideal climate and the prawns grow to full size in about six weeks, adding a useful secondary harvest as well as carrying out an essential filtering role. All the oysters, regardless of the grade, are then put through a final flushing tank where the water is kept at a constant 13˚C and is highly oxygenated with the fountains for a few days before being graded and boxed up to send direct to the client. I admit that in the name of research I did try them – just the one dozen, you understand! The texture of these oysters is so creamy and smooth they are unlike anything you have tasted before – incredible straight out of the tank with no more than a drop of lemon juice.
Everywhere you go on the water you will see stake markers indicating the oyster trestles. These are sometimes no more than a small branch with just the uppermost twigs visible above the water, and they are not lit at all. Even the outer banks are utilised for oyster production – anywhere the tide leaves high and dry at low water is covered in oyster tables. The locals, of course, know where the channels between the artificial reefs lie, but the visitor has to be extremely vigilant and careful.
Once out of the intertidal zone, the oysters give way to vast areas of mussel farming ropes. These are buoyed and are lit at night, but it still pays to give them a wide berth. The brisk tides are perfect for growing filter-feeding shellfish, and the rich waters grow enormous flesh-filled mussels full of flavour. If there is one thing that I love about France, it is the fresh food.
Off the southern end of the island, the influence of the river has created a long bar that extends seawards from Pointe de Gatseau for a significant distance. The tide builds horrendous rollers here, and in certain conditions it becomes a treacherous stretch of water with standing waves 20 feet high. The ebbing tide flowing out is forced upwards by the bottom, and the prevailing wind sends Atlantic rollers in that build as it shallows, until they are standing like Hawaiian reef breaks, which in effect is what they are. Consequently only small pleasure boats use the southern channel and the main shipping heads out to sea around the north of the island. This takes the pressure off the lower reaches and makes for a wild and unspoilt boating area.
Harbours are at a premium but there are visitor berths in the citadel marina, as well as something that we could do with introducing over here: pay-at-pump fuelling to make fuel available at any time of day or night. The harbours all dry out, but there is soft mud at low water as far as the eye can see to settle on, so there is little to fear – many of the local boats have conventional props and rudders and they come to no harm. The exception to this is in La Rochelle, where the main harbour has plenty of water at low tide.
La Rochelle probably needs little introduction as it is one of the most famous tourist ports on the Atlantic coast. Being a university city, it is full of night life, cafés, restaurants and, of course, boats. There is a vibrant boat show here each year, and the outer marina at the Port des Minimes is the largest marina on the Atlantic coast, possibly in Europe. The French love their sailing, and it is interesting that the marinas here are full of masts rather than engines. Where in the UK we have embraced the internal combustion engine more, the French have stuck with nature’s propulsion to a much greater extent.
A walk around the cobbled streets will show you what life must have been like in Cardinal Richelieu’s time. During the Hundred Years War La Rochelle was under British rule, and remained so until 1372 after the battle of La Rochelle, when the Spanish and French joined forces against the English fleet. Throughout its turbulent history, La Rochelle has always been fiercely independent and was a state within a state until the city was besieged and eventually fell into line, albeit as a protestant stronghold of the Huguenots within Catholic France. That was when Richelieu formed a blockade once again, for 14 months, until the city surrendered. My ancestors were emigrants from this conflict, settling in Cornwall, so La Rochelle has ancestral roots for me. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel, was set here and during this embattled time.
There is a strong affinity with England in this part of France and it is a lovely place to visit. You should make the effort and perhaps visit around the time of the boat show. There is so much to see and so little time to see it in.