Saturday, August 30, 2008

Low Expectations

The omens weren't good. The weather forecast looked mightily similar to where we leaving behind; our youngest had a wrist in plaster, having managed to acquire a green-stick fracture in the first week of the holidays, which seemed to be increasingly doom-laden. The raison d'être for the trip was to have been to cycle and swim - but these were now out of the equation for one of our number. So, when our flight to Nantes in North-West France arrived bang on time and completely without incident, things seemed to be looking up. Our convictions were further reinforced when the hire car was better than the usual dross that gets palmed off on unsuspecting tourists and had the added bonus of Sat Nav to boot. Of course all of this good fortune was lulling us into a false sense of security as the charming female tones of the directional device led us straight into a humdinger of a holiday jam on the Nantes peripherique.

We might have expected this. After all, August in France is prime season: the bête noire is that the patriotic Gallic hordes take en masse to their Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots and head for the sun. In this case they all seemed to have opted for our destination of the Ile de Re and had set off at exactly the same time. We travelled around the ring road at escargot's pace, but on reaching the autoroute the confiture subsided and we picked up speed towards our villa for the week, which had been booked through Homelidays. Our hopes were dashed once more as we settled into a slow-moving queue north of Marans, now off the fast road and into the Marais Poiteven, a marshy wonderland criss crossed by canals but few roads, so we had little option but to sit it out - only punctuated by calls to the villa's owner with tardier rendezvous times for the all important key handover ceremony.

When we finally made it we were greeted by Michel, white van man and proud possessor of a chic pied-à-terre on the edge of Sainte Marie de Re. This was no fin de siècle monstrosity though but a modern clean lined single storey structure finished in the vernacular whitewashed walls, curly red tiles and green shutters. The villa was supremely equipped for holiday activity with pool, trampoline, ping pong, boules and brick barbecue. He seemed to be up on his technology though and had installed a PC with internet access thrown in, electrically operated security shutters and wireless surveillance devices around the property. Our French wasn't good enough to ask him if he could monitor our every move - a creepy thought. Hopefully he only used this for when his charming place was unoccupied.

Goals - it is important to have these and never more so than when on your annual vacation. Mine were simple - oysters - I had to try some. I had lost my oyster virginity in Whitstable a while back, and was keen to re-kindle my relationship with these beautiful bi-valves. These are a speciality of the Charentes-Maritime region: trying the local chow helps to root your holiday with a sense of place and increase your joie de vivre. I finally ticked off this off my list on a visit to the busy port area of La Rochelle, a town with heritage, like the fifteenth century 'Lanterne tower' an ancient vertigo inducing 55 metre lighthouse - worth a day's visit. My family were not impressed by the odour of my hors d'oeuvres however and opted for the tried and tested favourite of moules frites - not haute cuisine certainly, but the standard of 'ordinary' French cooking beats most British pub grub.

It is the cuisine that keeps drawing us back to our nearest neighbour. I mean you have to be bowled over by a country that celebrates bread - one the most basic foodstuffs known to man. The French pay homage to their bakers - a hard working profession who toil away while the nation sleeps to supply us with tasty breakfast items. They elevate some to artisan status - there is no higher honour - these are experts at their chosen craft but with their skill comes the added benefit that the product that they sell arrives with scarcely a few food kilometres on the clock. This bread is designed to be consumed close to the point of origin or else it turns to inedible dry sandpaper and nobody wants that.

A visit to the market - like the medieval one at La Flotte - one of the island's larger towns and another busy port, can easily consume a morning. Away from the practicalities of earning a crust, you can afford to linger over tables heaving with spices, fruits, vegetables, every conceivable kind of fish, seafood and souvenirs carved from stone or fashioned from iron. The trusty traders know how to display their wares to greatest temptation - designed to extract the maximum number of holiday euros from the thronged customers weaving their way around the stalls.

St Martin de Ré, whose harbour harbours its own islet also accommodates attractions for the visitor. The largest ice-cream shop I have ever encountered sits there on the front, enticing the clientèle with its array of ices. There were more flavours than there are days in the long school summer break and I believe the counter, which seemed to stretch for three shop units width had to be that long so that they could display the names of the different ones they offered. The milling hordes were three deep at the bar, but I don't know how many of them were queuing for the most exotic taste of 'caviar and oyster'.

No visit to the Ile de Ré would be complete without a trip to the salt pans. This 'cottage' industry had declined massively from its peak in the nineteenth century, but there is still something supremely satisfying about their year round struggle to harvest the natural resources of the sea. Another basic element but vital to the preparation of the region's most flavoursome dishes, salt has to be persuaded to part company from its watery home by a combination of wind and sun and man made pools of decreasing depth. Anyone au fait with the skill of the salt worker would know that they use paddles and scoops to extract the salt first from the surface - literally 'salt flowers' and then through more strenuous sloshing of water to scrape the crystallised salt into a rectangular pyramid. These regular snowy peaks dotted across the landscape give rise to a scene like none other.

Back at our holiday home, our own private hexagonal pool (an unashamed luxury) provided many hours of enjoyment, but also an unexpected added bonus. The sheer pleasure of watching the pool cleaning robot scurrying about on its underwater quest to rid the pool of damp debris and submerged slime, brought about a state of tranquil relaxation and je ne sais quoi that could not be induced by the local wine alone. The decking of the patio and pool surround revived memories of my own construction in a previous residence - the warmth of the wood when exiting the pool was a sharp contrast to the usual cold, rough tile. In the evening sun, you could sit at the table, shaded by the electrically operated awning (de rigueur around these parts), sipping your Ile de Re rosé. C'est la vie!

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