Île d’Oléron

Île d’Oléron

By
Luke Nguyen
Contains
9 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742707181
Photographer
Alan Benson

My next stop is a four-hour drive north of biarritz, and equally beautiful: It’s the Île d’Oléron, nicknamed the ‘Island of oysters’. I love oysters, so I’m in heaven in this truly gorgeous spot, which has retained a refreshingly authentic feel as few foreign tourists venture here.

Still, the last thing I want to do is start a food war, so it’s probably a mistake to ask a die-hard Île d’Oléron local, and a restaurateur to boot, if I should be eating his oysters natural or cooked.

The son of oyster farmers, James Roberts runs a cute little restaurant right on the end of a pier on this charming little island. It’s a quaint place, full of cottages painted in bright colours, and seafood restaurants with handwritten menu boards. I like James’ approach: if the weather is bad, he doesn’t open. If it’s sunny... well, maybe he’ll open!

James is passionate about the region and about oysters, and is a great source of knowledge. He tells me how, back in the 1980s, a local chef got the notion to serve oysters warm, under a blanket of beurre blanc sauce and tangles of julienned veg. A heated oyster was a controversial concept back then, but the idea caught on, and today hot oysters are the most popular dish on his menu.

I like this idea that, even though France has so many food traditions and defined ways of doing things, there’s still room for change!

At the bustling fish market, I’m surprised by how many different types of oysters there are to sample, and I love how the vendors take time to describe all the flavours and varieties to me. I see fish species that I’ve never come across before, such as cute baby sole, and I learn so much from the friendly fishmongers who happily share all their cooking tips with me. I leave with a kilo or so of fresh langoustines under my arm to stir-fry. Fantastic.

The rhythms of the Atlantic affect the ebb and flow of human activities onshore, and the island’s dramatic landscapes alter considerably when the tide goes out. Vast mud flats appear, and with them the cockle gatherers, some of them professional.

I go out gathering with Patrick and Johnny, and am reminded how my entire extended family would collect shellfish together like this at low tide.

Cockle gathering is a completely sustainable industry here, for the simple reason that the cockles are so plentiful! The guys need to get 30 kg each day to make a living — but I’m content with a small bucketful, which I wok-cook in lemongrass, tamarind, coconut juice and fish sauce, on a retaining wall right on the beach.

This is definitely something I could get used to, but all too soon it’s time to journey on.

Recipes in this Chapter

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