March 10, 2014
The Charentes area of south-west France is where land and ocean come together. Inland, it’s a rich agricultural area of rolling hills, oak and pine forests, lush pastures and Cognac vineyards. The landscape pans out towards the coast, giving way to fields of sunflowers and then the dramatic Atlantic Ocean, from the wild and windswept Côte Sauvage to the coves of the Gironde Estuary. I was fortunate to spend a decade of my life there, and one of the highlights was the delicious local produce, from the freshest shellfish to the earthier pleasures of the Ile de Ré potato. Here is a selection of the best:
The region’s Huîtres Fines de Claire (oysters) are highly prized and come in a medley of shapes and sizes, ranging from five (the smallest) to double-zero, which are easily as long as your hand. Served raw, and dressed simply with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a blend of shallots, vinegar and black pepper, they slip down perfectly with a glass of chilled, dry and fruity Muscadet, which complements their iodine-rich taste. For a gourmet seafood experience and a great, buzzy atmosphere, try the terrace of Bar André, overlooking the old harbour in La Rochelle. For a more rustic and authentic taste of the ocean, head to the small, coastal town of Marennes, the oyster capital of the south-west, where you can buy oysters direct from farmers’ tiny shacks, and savour their salty freshness on the spot.
Fortunately I can continue to indulge my passion for this most exquisite of melons with its firm orange flesh, which originated in the Poitou-Charentes area of France and can now be sourced fairly readily in our own greengrocers. Finding a perfectly ripe specimen can be more of a challenge. When ready to eat, the blue-green skin turns yellow and the fruit breaks off easily from its stem. Ripe melons also tend to be heavier than their under-ripe counterparts. However, as I learned during all those years in France, there’s only one reliable test: a good sniff. As the locals say, “no smell, no taste”. Charentais melon slices wrapped in cured meat make for a palate-awakening, sweet-and-savoury starter, or slice in half, scoop out the seeds and fill with chilled Pineau des Charentes, the local aperitif.
Recognised in culinary circles as one of the finest butters in the world, this dairy delicacy has something of a cult following and is produced from cattle feeding on grassy pastures within a tiny 50km radius of the Echiré dairy, according to a strict quality charter. So, what’s special about it? In my opinion, it’s the soft, creamy texture and slightly tangy taste of the unsalted version that makes the difference. I love the way it’s presented in a little wooden basket, too – it shouts tradition and authenticity. Slather it onto a freshly baked baguette for a breakfast made in heaven, and save the diet for another day!
Ile de Ré Potato
A testimony to the French passion for local specialities, this dainty, sought-after new potato has been granted AOC status (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in recognition of its quality of production and distinctive flavour. Like our own Jersey Royals, it has crumbly, sweet flesh and a subtle taste of the sea, thanks to the sandy soil on the island and seaweed-based fertilisers used by its growers. It’s made all the more special by being in season for only a few weeks each year, from early May to the end of June.
Pineau des Charentes
This delicious local aperitif is made by adding freshly squeezed, unfermented grape juice to Cognac, which is then aged in oak barrels for 14 months to five years or more. Depending on the choice of grapes, it comes in all the hues of a wonderful sunset, ranging from pale honey to rich gold and from fresh pink to deep raspberry. Usually served chilled as an aperitif, straight from the fridge, it also pairs well with foie gras, cheeses, fish, poultry and game, can be served as a dessert wine, used in cocktails, and features in many local recipes such as Mouclade (mussels with Pineau sauce). Recipe here.