La Cotinière Île d’Oléron
The idyllic Île d’Oléron is the largest of French islands except for Corsica. It is about 40 minutes drive south of better known La Rochelle and its smaller but also charming island of Ré.
An important fishing port of Oleron is La Cotinière, site of the commercial fish auctions. It is a place where it seems difficult to take a poor photograph, whether by day, as when I arrived late in the afternoon…
…or by night, when its lies as if in some luminous postcard…
…waiting for the fishermen to bring the resting boats to life.
La Cotinière is the largest and most important of what are known as the “big three” fishing ports of the Charente-Maritime region, the other two being La Rochelle and Royan.
The annual catch is over 4,300 tonnes of fish that are sold at the daily electronic auction on the dockside, reputably the most modern such auction in all of France.
There are around 75 fishing boats of different types whose home port is La Cotinière - trawlers …
…those that troll – dragging lines with hooks, and side trawlers…
… that deploy long nets instead of the wider ones of the trawler.
I would later see them laid out on the docks.
It is quite a sight to watch the returning fishing boats.
I had been standing on the heads by the lighthouse as they started to return and drove back around to be able to see them negotiating the sandbars around La Cotinière as they bore their catch back to port.
The contrast in size between trawler and small fishing boat …
…doesn’t mean that the earnings of the smaller vessel may differ significantly for the individual fishermen – for they focus on different types of fish, each with their niche market. Perhaps the smaller vessel was bringing shellfish, or perhaps he had been trolling, with lines and hooks instead of nets.
I watched as a trawler pulled alongside what looked like a giant vacuum cleaner at the mouth of the harbour.
This was the first stop for several but not all vessels and presumably depends on the nature of the catch.
The trawler then pulled alongside where a series of cranes are ready for the a crew member to climb up the ladder and operate one to haul up crates of sorted seafood on ice ready for the La Cotinière auction.
Before long all the cranes were busy.
…and then the unloading of gear began.
It certainly took less time than for most for this small fishing boat to return to its berth.
Later, I was eager to sample some of Oleron’s seafood and smiled as I walked around reading menus posted on the walls outside. They reminded me of the quote I had read somewhere by the well known “Anonymous”…
does not mean catch of the day
I was finally drawn to the Restaurant l'Ecailler which overlooks the port and is also a hotel.
Having read of its location I had contemplated staying there, but it was probably just as well I didn’t because the food there was so good I may never moved far away from it to explore the rest of this spectacular little jewel of an island.
As I entered, some diners had just received their La Cotinière seafood platter.
I was so amazed at the sight I asked would they mind if I took a photo.
Having seen this piece of culinary seafood art it wasn’t difficult to choose from a menu that would otherwise have had me pondering a selection while salivating in anticipation of fresh seafood at its best.
I ordered a smaller version of the seafood platter for myself.
It was just as magnificent – and all for me!
Before my meal arrived I sipped a glass of champagne and thought I was almost meeting the command of Lord Byron:
A woman should never be seen eating or drinking,
unless it be lobster, salad and champagne.
The only true feminine and becoming viands
Not wishing to appear too proper I dispensed with the salad.
The meal of shellfish and crustaceans makes you work for your meal and is better completed when lubricated by a nice amount of delicious Oleron wine.
As the level in my glass grew lower I looked at the tools that had been supplied with the platter.
Having originally wondered about the smaller utensils provided, I found them particularly well-designed for ejecting the contents of the smaller varieties of shellfish.
Apart from having such a wonderful setting, with La Cotinière port right before you…
… Restaurant l'Ecailler is a fine seafood restaurant in a town of fine seafood restaurants.
During my week on Oleron I did a survey. I told people I was in search of the perfect oyster, and asked where they, as a local would recommend me to go to find it. I never got the same recommendation twice.
Having eaten my way across the island, I knew that this was not because nothing was exceptional. Rather, it was because there is so much exceptional dining on Oleron that you are totally spoiled for choice.
The waiting staff of l'Ecailler were delightful.
I was quite late arriving and by the time I was waiting for my dessert the staff were preparing the tables for the next day and teaching a new waitress their particular method of arranging the serviettes. This involved a particular flicking ability with the fabric pinched together at particular points.
It took several demonstration efforts before the new waitress proudly perfected it.
For the rest of us still left it was good theatre.
The dark haired girl was an Audrey Hepburn lookalike and as charming as beautiful.
…and the perfection of the finished settings showed what a little fun in learning can do.
The next day I parked my car in a parking lot just off the main street of La Cotinière and was amused by the designer-shirt-wearing scarecrow above the ripening cherries in the neighbouring yard.
There are lots of small boutique shops in La Cotinière but it took a little while to reach them as I was way laid by chocolate and marzipan at this fantastic confisserie/pattisserie.
It was a hazard beside the cash machine and I am sure this strategically placed temptation had relieved many a person of their freshly dispensed money.
Here it was hard to choose between local pastries and jam…
…nougat and fondants…
…or between a wide range of caramels…
…and Parisian-quality cakes.
The cakes won and I took my purchase to the port to enjoy.
I could live here, I thought. Good white wine, good red wine (that doesn’t always go together), delicious seafood, the best oysters in France (that should get some comments) , island beef and lamb, lovely designer goods, delicious temptations for the sweet tooth – and spectacular scenery.
The only thing wrong is “in season” when it is over-run…
But there is much here on the isalnd of Oleron to indulge the senses – and as Mae West said:
You only live once
But if you do it right,
once is enough
On the dockside the fishing nets were laid out to dry in front of a lovely fishing boat wind vane.
The dark turquoise nets and buoys of the trawler….
…the long lines of the troller…
…were laid out in each direction for inspection and repair where required…
..taking up a fair section of the parking lot…
..and once inspected, piled into heaps…
…making me wonder how people knew which was which.
Apart from its importance as a fishing port – and being renowned for its oysters – the French island of Oléron is marked into history as the place where the first European maritime laws were set into charter.
These laws, known as “the Rolls of Oléron” were based on the Assizes or laws of the ancient Kingdom of Jerusalem, established by the Crusaders on the Levant.
At its peak, this kingdom of the Crusaders extended from the Mediterranean across the Sinai desert to include what is now Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories.
Maritime transport being the key to power and the shipping of goods being a vital component of feeding this power, there were many disputes that arose – over ships provisioning, privateering, damage at sea that affected the cargo, changed routes due to weather that affected the arrival of goods destined for another port – and who was to take responsibility for the ensuing loss, as well as the handling, provisioning & rights of the crew...the issues were numerous.
The Rolls of Oléron (often later called the “Rules” of Oléron) addressed all these issues in detail and Eleanor of Aquitaine declared them law in 1162 following her return from the second Crusade. Eleanor’s husband, King Henry II, formerly Henry Plantagenet, had remained and it was thus in her role of regent that she enacted what was to become the basis for Admiralty Law to this day.
Oleron at the time these laws were enacted, was a powerful and strategic location, with the strongest Marine Guilds on the Atlantic.
As I stood looking over the lovely port of La Cotinière, I was pleased it had retained its true character, despite being a favourite French holiday destination.
Its importance passed with the era but Oleron still has held its character. I didn’t feel the same when visiting the island of Ré whose proximity to La Rochelle has changed its focus more noticeably from maritime affairs to tourism
There seemed to be a symmetry to life here. It was reflected in the open and friendly people and their general air of happiness with life.
Perhaps they understood what Henry David Thoreau did when he said that:
Many go fishing all their lives
that it is not fish they are after
Back to Main Page