Ile de Ré, France: Consider the Oyster (. . . and the Shrimp, and the Salted Caramel, and . . . ) In her book Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher, a lover of all things France, delves deeply into the “dreadful but exciting” life of, and the culture that surrounds, the King of All Bivalves. I read it back in the 90s, living in San Francisco, and around that time Jim and I spent more than a few long weekend afternoons at the Pacific Heights Bar and Grill slurping platter after platter of malpeques or kumamotos.
Ah, my misspent youth.
In fact, for my last birthday, Jim went down to the local fish market and bought a few dozen and an oyster knife and had Danny, the fishmonger, teach him how to shuck. (They also spent an inordinate amount of time in the back of the market testing – and tasting – Jim’s handiwork.) Anyway, I love oysters. Jim loves oysters. (Yao Yao? Not so much.) So when I started doing research on Ile de Ré and saw photos of bikes leaning up against the walls of oyster shacks, I knew right then: Jim, we’re going!
Though tiny, the French island of Ile de Ré has a rich food and wine culture. Which is perfect for my family, as food is a huge part of travel for us. Yao Yao has become a real food adventurer, and is usually happy to jump in and try “stinky” cheese or “weird” fish. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t love what we would consider mediocre pizza and ersatz food. (Boxed mac ‘n’ cheese? Quel horreur!) But she’s usually game for at least a taste of something new and exciting.
And Ile de Ré is a great place to stretch out kids’ tastes a bit: It boasts amazing, super-fresh seafood, plucked right out of the ocean; an incredible array of cheeses, local fruits, and vegetables; and, of course, breads and pastries to tempt even the most carbo-phobic traveler. Our days often center on where and what we’re going to eat – and making those plans is half the fun. On Ile de Ré, there are so many wonderful things to taste, nibble, and, yes, overindulge on. Yao Yao and I think these are “dietary staples” you need to try:
Ile de Ré is in the Charente-Maritime area of France’s Atlantic coast and is known for oysters, whelks, langoustines, and other fruits de mer. Oyster farming is truly an art form – one that the islanders excel at. There are oyster shacks, or cabanes, sprinkled all over the island, and they make for a perfect respite when you’re in need of a little “nourishment.” La Cabane du Feneau is our favorite, but there are many others that are quite good. (We’re talking oysters that were in the ocean this morning – how bad can they be?) But we adopted La Cabane Du Feneau because along with incredible oysters, they also ladled out a passable soupe de poisson (fish soup, which Yao Yao tasted everywhere) crevettes roses (tender, sweet little shrimp – Yao Yao’s favorite), as well as a heavenly galette charentaise. (When we asked what the galette was made with, the waiter uttered but one word: “Butter.”)
It doesn’t hurt that you’re enjoying your dozen or so oysters alfresco, on cute tables on the grass, with baskets of bread, surrounded by wild hollyhocks. You can smell the ocean air, and that just serves to stoke your appetite for more.
We also loved Cabana Jam, a funkier oyster eatery that we happened upon while riding on the bike path just outside St. Martin. You can see the oyster flats on one side and unspoiled marshlands on the other. We sat outside on picnic tables and consumed more oysters and shrimp and other ocean delicacies than I care to admit to. Jim enjoys bulots (whelks) but they are too crunchy and snail-like for my taste. Yao Yao was utterly grossed out by the entire process of prying them out of their shells and actually eating them – which he preceded to do with relish. Yao Yao contented herself with more shrimp than I thought one human child could possibly consume.
Okay, it may seem odd to sing the praises of the “lowly” potato (unless, of course, you work for the Idaho Tourism Board), but the new potatoes on Ile de Ré are justly prized. If you get a chance and happen to be on the island in May or June, try them. I mean it. Grown in salty, dry soil in mild temperature and harvested before maturity so keep the starch content low, the potatoes on Ile de Ré are the only variety to have an AOC designation, in recognition of their consistent high quality. Farmers follow rigorous specification as to germination, grading, and commercialization, and have become part of a regional sustainable farming movement. The result is a potato that even starch-avoiders like Yao Yao could really enjoy.
Breads and pastries are a religion unto themselves in France. I didn’t have the heart to tell anyone that Yao Yao does not like croissants. (She can go on at length about the croissant, how it’s overrated, how we’ve been sold “a bill of goods” about them. Really? What’s this kid’s problem here? Methinks she doth protest too much!) Anyway, with every pastry she consumes, she declares it far superior to the croissant – and luckily, there is a huge range of breakfast treats to choose from. Yao Yao tried pastries in all shapes and sizes, and loved it all, except for cupcakes in a couple of places, which didn’t stack up to the good ol’ moist American versions. But let’s face it, the French know their way around a baking oven, and it shows on Ile de Ré.
Side Note: I have yet to figure out what the difference is between the “classic” and “traditional” baguette, so if there is an expert out there, let me know! In the meantime, I will joyfully eat either.
Crêpes We’ve had crêpes in many countries and Yao Yao has proclaimed herself a crêpe hater. (This time, the aversion stems from a real experience, at least: an unfortunate buckwheat crêpe we had in Spain, which left her “scarred for life,” as she tells it.) I haven’t had a crêpe in about 20 years, but something made me order one with sugar and butter one drizzly afternoon in St. Martin. I think I was able to get one bite into my mouth before the locusts (Jim and Yao Yao) swarmed the plate and ate the entire thing. Yao Yao is now a crêpe lover, but sweet, not savory – and not buckwheat!
Ice Cream Ice cream has never been something we think about when we go to France. The ice cream was fine, but when you have gelato, why bother with anything less? But with gelato’s popularity, it seems ice cream all over the world has started getting richer, denser – more gelato-y! Anyway, Yao Yao had wonderful ice cream (every day!) and she made every effort to try every venue we could find, although the parfum was usually the same – chocolat. Our favorite was the La Martinière, right on the port in St. Martin. It didn’t hurt that around the corner they were making waffles, with toppings like Nutella and chocolate sauce!
Excuse me while I get . . . well, salty. Ile de Ré is known for its salt flats and the amazing salt, called fleur de sel, that’s harvested here and sold globally. Cistercian monks brought salt production techniques to the islands in the 13th Century, creating breakwaters and backfilling with clay, until today, approximately 18% of the island is reclaimed land, with a lot of it dedicated to salt.There are several places you can watch the sauniers raking salt, and there is even a museum of salt in the village of Loix, where you can learn about the process and history.
Even with the advent of pink Himalayan and other “designer” salts, the industry is shrinking, according to one third-generation saunier we talked to, who has had to take a second job, as the salt industry cannot employ the workers year round – the land is now being for more “productive” vineyards.
Anyway, when fleur de sel is added to almost anything, the result is magic. But the real magic happens when it’s added to the amazing caramels or chocolates made on the island. I always had a bag of something sweet (and salty) at the ready, just for “emergencies.” I’m embarrassed to say, I bought a few bags for gifts that never made it to their rightful owners.
We even discovered a little freestanding kiosk on the bike path to Loix where you pay for your salt, caramel, and herb purchases on the honor system – you just put your euros in the strongbox and off you go. There was also a little basket full of caramels with sea salt for you to taste before you buy.
Only on Ile de Ré!
And then there’s the brew. My husband doesn’t drink, and I’m kindly referred to as a “lightweight,” but I did sample some of the local wine and it’s very good. Cognac and wine are produced on the island, and it’s worth a visit to the wineries, if you imbibe. They also produce Pineau des Charente, which is often referred to as the “younger brother of Cognac.” It’s basically a fortified wine made from a blend of lightly ferment grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie. According to legend, Pineau was discovered by accident: During the harvest of 1589, a farmer put grape must into a barrel that he believed was empty, but which actually contained some eau-de-vie. A few years later, cellar masters found the barrel – and discovered the delicious blend of juice and Cognac. From that day forward, the Charentais people have enjoyed their Pineau – and though I do enjoy a libation myself now and again, I found biking riding and wine drinking to be mutually exclusive. But maybe that’s just me!
There’s a broad spectrum of eateries on the island, with something for even the pickiest of eaters. It’s certainly a treasure trove for lovers of French coastal fare. As Yao Yao is not a fan of oysters, we couldn’t eat every meal at the cabanes, so we ate at some lovely restaurants that served grilled fish, moules frites (mussels and French fries), platters of fried zucchini flowers, grilled vegetables, salades au chevre (salad with goat cheese) good pasta dishes, and amazing desserts of every variety. I still snuck in oysters or fruits de mer at almost every meal! We also spent a fair amount of time in cafes, eschewing the huge hotel breakfast for a lighter French petite dejeuner. The beauty of the large variety of eateries is that you can get whatever you want. We saw oodles of kids eating sophisticated fare, and even more eating pizza, croque monsieurs (French “grilled cheese” with ham, which can be picked off, if you’re Yao Yao), and the like. There’s always something for kids to eat – don’t worry.
The little local markets were a wonderful alternative to a sit-down lunch. I longed for a kitchen to try my hand at some of the seafood, meat, and vegetables. Instead, we “provisioned” rich cheeses like reblochon, crème de lyon, and chabichou du Poitou; green olive tapenades; smoked fish and cured meats; figs and other wonderful fruits; and more.Yao Yao even tried anchois marinés, (marinated anchovies) and declared them “not awful.” I loved the landmark 12th Century outdoor market in La Flotte, and the covered market in Le Bois Plage. The best tapenades were in the little outdoor market at La Couarde sur Mer. (The rotisserie chicken vendor there did a huge business with locals, too, but the idea of pulling a warm chicken apart while sitting in the sun didn’t appeal. But if we had a house . . . )
Side Note: Since I’ve gotten home, I have been to every specialty market in a 50 mile radius and cannot find any yogurt that comes close to the richness and downright deliciousness of the little glass bottles of yogurt I found in the market in La Bois Plage, with fresh cherries, berries, or caramel. (Yes, I said caramel!) Anyone have any suggestions?
RESTAURANTS & CAFES
L’Ocean – good seafood and wonderful waitstaff. Hotel l’Océan
– perfect for a French breakfast but know they open late! They seemed to serve everything from pizza to fish but it’s near the Market in Le Bois-Plage-en-Re Rue Jean Moulin, 17580 Le Bois-Plage-en-Re
Le Moulin a Cafe– perfect for a French breakfast but know they open late! They seemed to serve everything from pizza to fish but it’s near the Market in Le Bois-Plage-en-Re Rue Jean Moulin, 17580 Le Bois-Plage-en-Re
Le Tout de Cru in Saint Martin de Re They have wonderful seafood platters, even sea urchins, as well as many meat dishes. They were so sweet to Yao Yao. 9 quai Job Foran | (Cour de l’ancien cinema), Saint Martin de Re Le Tout de Cru
Le Nautic in La Flotte – good fare from mussels, grilled sardines, bass and platters of smoke fish and fresh seafood. Reasonably priced on the harbor.
La Tour du Senechal – casual lunch spot, where you can sit outside and enjoy lovely local fare. Place Carnot, 7, Ars-en-Re, Ile de Re, France La Tour du Senechal
Taxi Brousse– fun spot but not a lot of variety for children. The environment outshone the food.
Le Bistro Marin – Lovely little spot in Saint Martin de Re. Both good meat and seafood options. 10, quai Nicolas Baudin, 17410 Saint Martin de Re, Ile de Re, France
CABANES-(OYSTER SHACKS)La Cabane Feneau– loved the atmosphere, the people who owned the cabane and the oysters! La Cabane Feneau, Cabana Jam– fun, funky oyster shake with full of bike riders enjoying fresh seafood on picnic tables. Cabanajam
La Cabane du Fier -Le Martray, 17590 Ars-en-Re, Ile de Re, France
ICE CREAM & MORE La Martinere – located in La FLotte and Saint Martin de Rè, a large variety of flavors and very patient scoopers! La Martinere
L’Atelier– ice cream in between two wonderful macrons. Who knew L’Atelier
La Chocolatiere– wonderful chocolates and treats La Chocolatiere
SALT & CARAMELS Les salicorniers – they sell wonderful Caramels with fleur de sel, as well as caramels with Pineau and other flavors. They also have salt with herbs and other gift items. (I wish I’d bought more!)
La Cabane des Sauniers This is a cooperative of salt farmers that will give you a tour and explain the fascinating process. Book ahead, during high season. 7, Route de la Prée 17590 Ars-en-Ré Phone : +33 (0)5 46 29 40 27 http://www.sauniers-iledere.com
Ars en Re: From French Easter school holidays to 11 June and from 13 September to November 1st: Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Summer market from 12 June to 12 September at the harbour: daily. Winter market: Tuesdays and Fridays
Le Bois Plage en Re: From 1 April to 30 September and during French school holidays: daily. Out of season: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
La Couarde sur Mer: From 15 June to 30 September: daily. Out of season: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Winter: Wednesdays and Saturdays.
La Flotte en Re: All year: daily. In July and August: evening market daily. (One of our favorites!) Loix: From 1 July to 15 September: daily. Out of season: Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Les Portes en Re: From 15 June to 15 September: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Out of season: Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Rivedoux Plage: July and August: daily. Out of season: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Saint Clement des Baleines: July and August: daily. Out of season: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Sainte Marie La Noue : Daily Place d’Antioche and at La Noue Place des Tilleuls.
Saint Martin de Re: From 15 June to 15 September: daily. Out of season: daily except Mondays. Closed: 3 weeks in January