During her week’s stay on the Ile d’Oleron, Gillian Thomas reckons she must have consumed more oysters than she had had in her entire life.
Ile d’Oleron is France’s second largest - behind Corsica. Mostly flat, it lies just off the west coast south of La Rochelle and is reached by a three kilometre long bridge. Though much less famous than its fashionable neighbour, the Ile de Re, you can’t beat it for oysters, especially when accompanied by a glass - or two - of the local aperitif, Pineau Charentais.
60,000 tons of oysters each year
Around 60,000 tons of oysters are produced each year in the bay of Marennes which I overlooked while staying at Boyardville, a small resort on the eastern side of the island. Also in the bay - and much more prominent than the oyster beds - is the formidable 19th-century Fort Boyard, famous as the setting for the popular TV adventure game show. During the summer months, there are regular boat trips around it.
The main site where oysters are cultivated on the island, only a short way from Boyardville, is the Moeze-Oleron reserve at Fort Roger. I hopped on a hire-bike one morning to cycle there and sign up for one of its tours. Set beside the oyster beds which stretch out into the bay are 48 small colourful preparation huts surrounded by a network of shallow ponds. As my guide, Evelene Morgat, whose grandfather was one of the first producers, explained, ostriculture is still very much both a family affair and a craft.
Oysters lay millions of eggs
Oysters lay millions of eggs and the larvae attach themselves to poles which have been installed in the bay. They grow slowly until after about two years, they are big enough to be taken off individually, a delicate time-consuming operation. Then they are carefully put one by one into seawater ponds and left to grow to exactly the right size under the expert eye of the producer. Finally they are cleaned by hand - woman’s work! - in the huts and classified according to their colour and weight.
No wonder they are such a delicacy. Indeed Marennes Oleron oysters are unique in France in having an official trade mark with medium ‘claires’ being the most popular. In most Oleron restaurants you can feast on them for around a euro each - and they cost even less when bought at a local market.
An oyster and mussel festival
I was lucky enough to be visiting the island in mid-July when an oyster and mussel festival took place at the nearby town of Le Chateau d’Oleron. It was a very jolly affair with quayside stalls selling oysters, mussels and pineau to drink, either white or the sweeter red. The local way of serving the mussels is as ‘escades’, 40 of them neatly packed on a tray and roasted on a huge smoky bonfire. It was entertaining to watch them being snatched flamboyantly from the flames on shovels.
The festivities ended around midnight with a magnificent fireworks display high on the massive 17th-century walls of the citadel after which the town is named. Visitors mingled with locals, all enjoying the fun together, making it clear that the island, unlike so many other holiday spots, has not been overwhelmed by tourism and still thrives too as a centre for the cultivation of oysters and mussels.
In addition cooperative vineyards, mainly in the north of the island, produce table wine as well as pineau, while in the south ancient salt pans have recently been revived.
Great for a laidback holiday
Altogether the island certainly caters well for anyone looking for a laidback holiday. Only 18 miles long and five at its widest, it is marshy and seamed with canals on its eastern side where activities like fishing, birdwatching, canoeing and paddle-boarding are on offer. Long sandy beaches backed by dunes and woods with the occasional beach bar are to be found all round the coast.
In the south-west the aptly-named Grand Plage at the centre of a broad four mile stretch of sand is perfect for wind surfing and sand-yachting, not to mention simply lying back and enjoying the sun.
100 miles of cycle paths…
The marked network of almost 100 miles of cycle paths include many that lead through woods to beaches while others follow quiet roads around the flat marais - marshes - linking the six villages situated off the single main road that runs along the backbone of the island.
At its northern tip, Saint-Denis, the 46-metre high black and white striped Chassiron lighthouse is surrounded by gardens. Those who climb the 224 steps to the top are rewarded with long views of the whole island.
…and inland villages
Inland the villages of St Pierre and St Georges retain much of their original character with ancient churches, narrow streets, shuttered stone houses and covered markets. The market at St Pierre (held on Tuesdays and Saturdays) is certainly not to be missed for its fish, meats, fruit and organic local vegetables. Afterwards you can linger in one of the bars or restaurants which line the narrow pedestrianised main street.
The family-run Hotel des Bains where I stayed, one of three Logis on the island, is well-placed beside Boyardville’s long quay. Most of Oleron’s hotels are three star while campers have a selection of four star sites, including several around Saint-Georges, handy for beaches on both sides of the island.
It’s no surprise that sea-food restaurants are everywhere and their inclusive menus invariably include a choice of oysters or mussels. Look out too for scallops and tiny flat fish called ceteaux. Delicious!
Ile d’Oleron: www.oleron-island.com