Ile de’Oleron is the biggest of all the islands on the Charente coast, infact it is the second biggest island around France, only exceeded by Corsica.
The island has an Atlantic coast facing West with some wonderful sandy beaches, the longest of which is La Grande Plage, aptly named, don’t you think. The other coast faces East and thus looks back onto the mainland of France. The waters between the island and the mainland are known as Pertuis d’Antioche. These waters are shallow and are home to the much smaller islands of Ile d’Aix and Isle Madame also Fort Boyard and Fouras which is not an island but a peninsula sticking out into the sea. It is described on the signs as ‘the nearly island’, Le presque Ile.
Fort Boyard is a block of concrete, not an island, built as a fortification to protect the port of La Rochelle, you can get a boat trip out to see it close up, which I did once, but it is still a block of concrete no matter how close you get to it. Can you tell I was not impressed.
Ile d’Oleron is joined to the mainland by a 3Km viaduct built in 1966 and it is free to cross it unlike the bridge to Ile de Re. However in summer the roads get very busy and the approach road from Rochefort and the bridge can become one very long traffic jam. However if you are stuck you can pass the time watching the White Storks which nest in this area and use the elecricity pylons as a place to build their nests.
Tourism is a major industry on the island but there are also 1730 acres of vineyards, producing cognac, pineau and wine. The wine is a Vin de Pays Ile d’Oleron and is quite good. Also there are a lot of woods, made up of a mixture of Maritime Pine and Oak and these produce 3,000 cubic meters of timber a year.
Salt production was once important and still is on the neighbouring island of Ile de Re but now only two bussnises remain.
Oysters are the other major industry in this region and something between 45,000 to 60,000 tones of oysters are produced each year. They are known as Marennes Oleron and are regarded very highly. They are also sometimes refered to as Verts because they have a slightly greenish colour. They are grown in sacks called poches which are laid out on metal racks in the shallow waters When they are bought back to the shore on an oyster barge called a Plate they are then placed in a cleaning pond for some time it is here that they aquire the greenish colour due to a bluey green colured algae that lives in the ponds. The longer they spend in the pond and the less crowded they are the better they become. and this results in them being known as Fines de claire, or Speciales de claire, or Pousses en claire and determines not only the flavour but the price.
I am happy with the Fines de claire and I prefer them not too large. There are various ways to eat them but I prefer them not cooked and with a very little squeeze of lemon and you do not swallow them whole, you eat them gently and enjoy the flavour. Vin de Pays Charentais is a good accompanyment as is a Haut-Poitou Sauvignon.
Mussels are also grown but relatively few compared to the oysters, only about 1,200 tons a year. Finally there is a fishing industry and catches of fish are landed regularly in the different ports.