Charente-Maritime can really be described as a chef’s dream kitchen with a cupboard full of specialist ingredients. Famed for the oysters grown off the shores of this department on France’s Atlantic Coastline, there’s also salt, sea urchins and potatoes from the Ile de Ré, saffron from the Marais-Poitevin and the “hens with the golden eggs” from Marans among many other gourmet delights.
The excellence of the products from this department has lead to official certification:
2 AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) Cognac and Pineau des Charentes
2 AOP (appellation d’origine protégée) Butter Charentes-Poitou, potatoes of Ré
2 IGP (indication geographique protegée) Wine from Pays Charentais and oysters from Marennes Oléron
Label Rouge (red label) for the moules de filières (mussels)
We’ve picked some highlights for you.
For those who want to learn more about oyster cultivation, then head for the unmissable Oyster City. In parts fun and educational, visitors will find out everything they’ve ever wanted to know about the oyster, how to open them, how to prepare them and finally, how to eat them.
There was a second cross in the nineteenth century when a Chinese hen, a particularly effective layer called a Langshan, was imported in 1876. This new variety of bird was introduced to the world in 1914 at a national exhibition held in La Rochelle and was called the ‘country hen’.
The saffron is grown between Marennes and Surgères with it being manually harvested in October and November. Saffron sets the taste-buds going – especially in Indian, Spanish of North African dishes – but it is also good in a butter sauce on mussels, with prawns, pasta or otherwise in crème brulée or butter biscuits.
Today, the industry is enjoying a revival with around a hundred young workers proud to be in an environmentally friendly and long-standing business. The sea salt is collected between June and September and the fleur de sel (that pure top layer) is prized in French kitchens for its unique flavour. Either fine or in rock form, salt from the islands are often flavoured with thyme, basil or fennel. With varying meteorological conditions these days (you can’t harvest when it rains), production is between 1000 and 2,500 tons a year.
It is also found along the side of the oyster beds and grows for four months in summer in salty, dry conditions. It is a plant rich in minerals and thus very good for the health. It can be eaten raw – particularly good in salads, pickled like gherkins or cooked and served with meat or fish.