28 February 2021

Cabanes d'ostréiculteurs et les huîtres de Marennes-Oléron

Here's a slideshow made up of a lot more photos that I took on the Île d'Oléron in May 2008. The oyster farming area is on the marshy bay side of the island and is called Marennes-Oléron after the nearby mainland town of Marennes. The last photo in the slideshow is one that Walt took of an oyster dinner we had in our gîte on the island.

The oysters that are farmed in France are not a native European species; those are flat-shelled oysters (huîtres plates). The cultivated ones are "cupped" oysters (huîtres creuses — scientifically, Crassostrea gigas) from the Pacific Ocean (huîtres japonaises), which account for most of the production worldwide. They are hardier than the flat-shelled oysters (Ostrea edulis) that are native to French waters (called belons after a coastal river in Brittany).

French oyster-farming accounts for about 90% of total European oyster production, and very few French oysters are exported. The oysters are "raised" off-bottom, on tables or trestles that are covered by seawater at high tide and left high and dry at low tide. Often they are kept in mesh bags. Letting them grow on the sea bottom and then dredging for them is a less common practice than it used to be because bottom-dwelling oysters are more vulnerable to predators, including starfish, and diseases.

Before the oysters are put on the market, they are transferred to man-made salt ponds (claires) along the coast and left to fatten up for a few weeks. Leaner, less meaty Marennes-Oléron oysters are called fines de claires, and fatter, meatier oysters are called spéciales de claires. In France, oysters are almost exclusively served and eaten raw, on the half-shell.

27 February 2021

Ostréiculture à Oléron

One of the biggest industries on the Île d'Oléron (SW France) is oyster farming — ostréiculture in French. "An oyster" is une huître. Oysters are affinées (aged, fattened up) the way cheeses are affinés (aged, ripened). The part of the island where oysters are farmed isn't very prettied up, except for the bright and bold colors of the paint used on the oyster shacks (les cabanes ostréicoles). The oyster-farming area is called Marennes-Oléron — Marennes is a town on the mainland, just across the bridge from the island.

Some of these photos are mine, some are Walt's, and some are our friend Cheryl's. More tomorrow. These kinds of scenes remind me very much of the place where I grew up: Carteret County in North Carolina.

26 February 2021

La plage de Saint-Trojan sur l'île d'Oléron

On the Île d'Oléron (SW France) there's a little tourist train that runs from the town of Saint-Trojan-les-Bains, on the southern tip of the island, out to a wide, flat ocean beach. Since we decided not to sit in traffic at the bridge to the mainland, which was being blocked by striking fishermen, we were looking for fun outings on the island itself. We decided to take a ride on the little train. It was a journey of about four miles.

First we had lunch in a nice restaurant in Saint-Trojan (pop. less than 1,500). We sat outdoors on a terrace with a beautiful view of the bay. We could even see the bridge to the mainland off in the distance. I don't know why, but the restaurant had local fish on the menu — even though the fishermen were on strike — and we enjoyed our seafood meal. It was our only restaurant meal of the whole week we spent on Oléron.

One reason we could take the little train was that the dog, Callie, could go with us. It was the first and only time in her 10-year life that she rode on a train. I'm sure she was pretty scared. We had also planned to take her on a boatride too, but the entrances to the island's and La Rochcelle's harbor were blocked, so we couldn't go.

Here's the beach where the train dropped us off. It looked much more like a beach in North Carolina than did the coastline farther north at La Menounière, where we were staying.

These blue-suited guys were the engineer and the conductor on the little train. I think we stayed out on the beach for about an hour before getting on the train and riding back to town.

This was in late May. There had obviously been winter storms that pushed salt water up onto the beaches and into the woods at their base. Salt had killed a lot of little trees growing along the dune line. I've seen similar scenes in North Carolina after hurricanes blow through. There was a big storm in the area in 2010, and it brought high winds all the way to Saint-Aignan. We had two fruit trees uprooted by those winds, and tiles blown off our roof went flying around the neighborhood.

We saw crabs and starfish that had washed up onto the sand. All this was very familiar to me, since I grew up on the coast of North Carolina, four thousand miles to the southwest, at the other end of the Gulf Stream.

25 February 2021


Too many pelican pictures. Pelicans are pélicans in French.
These particular ones seem to turn their back when you get too close to them.

The pelicans I'm used to seeing when I go to North Carolina are brown pelicans, like these:

Meanwhile, I'm busy changing passwords on my e-mail addresses because three good friends (CHM, Nick, and Harriett) wrote to me yesterday to say they had received suspicious e-mails supposedly from me. Those messages are spam. I hope changing my passwords will put an end to the piratage.

24 February 2021

Des cygnes et des oies

Cygnes are swans and oies are geese. Here are some photos of both from the Île d'Oléron. The last image in the slideshow is not a still photo but a video that my friend Cheryl took when we visited the Marais aux Oiseaux bird sanctuary.

23 February 2021

Signs of Oléron

I like taking photos of colorful signs on houses and businesses. These are some that I saw on the Île d'Oléron a few years ago. I enjoyed Oléron because it reminded me so much of the place where I grew up in coastal North Carolina.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

P.S. I went to see my GP (mon médecin traitant) yesterday for my regular six-month checkup. There was a sign in his waiting room that said patients who wanted to get the Covid-19 vaccination should check with the medical center receptionist. I figured I'd just ask the doctor about it and soon enough he came to invite me into his office.

About the vaccination, he told me that I'm of an awkward age. People over 75 years old are getting the Pfizer vaccine in France right now. People between the ages of 50 and 64 who have conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure are eligible to get the AstrZeneca vaccine now. People who, like me, are between the ages of 65 and 74 just have to wait at this point. (I'll turn 72 next week.) Maybe we'll get vaccinated in March, or in April. Nobody yet knows.

22 February 2021

Birds on stilts

The birds in the photos below, which I took on Oléron shores, are called échassiers in French, it seems. Their long legs are like stilts, which are échasses in French. I would call these birds "shorebirds"; others might say "wading birds" or even "waders" — though in my dialect "waders" are waterproof "hip boots" that are worn by fishermen or firemen.

I'm really bad at identifying European birds, plants, and mammals because I grew up in North America, where we don't have the same species. It appears that there is a family of wading birds called "stilts" because their legs are so long and spindly. One species lives in western North America. Another lives in South America. I don't think any live on the east coast of North America. I'm not at all sure about the bird species you see in my photos.

21 February 2021

The May 2008 Oléron fish situation

When we planned our week-long stay on the Île d'Oléron, we imagine eating fish and other "fruits of the sea" (fruits de mer) every day. We figure that with good weather we'd be able to eat lunch outside on a terrasse, where the dog would be welcome.

Instead, this is what we were faced with. The commercial fishermen were on strike, and the fishing boats were confined to port. The restaurants on the island had run out of fish. The fish markets at the island's main fishing port, La Cotinière, were shut up tight. Remember, plus de poissons means "we're out of fish" or "no more fish" it's a negative.

The only fish to be had was shellfish. Luckily, all three of us enjoy mussels, clams, oysters, etc. We didn't have the moules + frites in this place, but we were tempted. Instead, we shopped in outdoor markets and made dinner at the gîte. In fact, we went to only one restaurant all week. The first photo above shows the fish one of us had in that restaurant.

At an open-air market in La Cotinière, we discovered a new edible mollusk — one we had never heard of before. It's a small bivalve, like a clam but with a more delicate shell. It's a local fruit de mer, and it's called a lavagnon in local parlance.

We decided to try it. And we all liked it. It was easy to cook and very flavorful. We just the whole lavagnons, shells and all, in a pan, poured on some white wine, and heated everything up until the lavagnon shells popped open.

Seasoned with a generous amount of black pepper and chopped parsley, it was tasty and filling. Especially because it was served over spaghetti, to which the lavagnon broth gave good flavor. For nearly 10 years after that trip, we could find lavagnons at the Saturday morning market in Saint-Aignan. Sadly, the fishmonger who used to come here every weekend from Oléron and set up in the market, retired a few years ago. No more lavagnons for us, but we've found we can make the same pasta and shellfish dish with cockles (coques), which are equally delicious and sell for about the same price.

20 February 2021

Terrapins on Oléron

These are photos I took nearly 12 years ago at the Marais aux Oiseaux bird sanctuary and refuge on the Île d'Oléron, off the French Atlantic coast. As you can see, they don't have just birds there.


19 February 2021

Hiboux et chouettes à Oléron

As CHM mentioned in a comment this week, our friend Cheryl loved owls, and collected them. She told me at one point that she had more than three thousand owl figurines, and she had a big glass-fronted cabinet where she kept many of them. She loved the owl trivets that belonged to CHM's partner Frank and that CHM gave to Cheryl when Frank died. I wish I had pictures of those.

Speaking of pictures, the one on the left is one that Cheryl took when we spent time in the Marais aux Oiseaux bird sanctuary on the Île d'Oléron.

Cheryl's photo of that owl is much better than mine (on the right). It has a quality my photo lacks. In her photo, the owl seems to be nodding toward her out of some kind of respect or recognition, don't you think? The only thing about my photo that I want to point out is that the owl we were photographing was what is called un hibou in French — an "eared" owl. The things that resemble ears are, in reality, just tufts of feathers.

The other kind of owl is called une chouette. It doesn't have the so-called "ears". The owls in the photo on the left and the next two are pictures of chouettes that I took at the Marais aux Oiseaux. The owls were kept in big cages.

I have copies of Cheryl's photos from her 2008 visit, and other visits, because she always left copies of them here, on my computer, as a safety measure when she flew back to California. That way, if she lost her camera or any other accident caused her to lose the pictures she'd taken, I could always copy them onto a CD or a memory card and send them to her. Cheryl passed away a few years ago.

Cheryl also took a photo of the sign below. It shows the differences between chouettes and hiboux, and gives the names of some of the owls that live on the Île d'Oléron or on the mainland nearby. The photo was in good focus and you can read the text on it, especially if you enlarge it.

18 February 2021

Les maisons d'Oléron

This two-minute slideshow will give you an idea about what the houses on the Île d'Oléron look like. Notice that a lot of them had closed shutters when we were there in late May 2008 — they must be summer places (résidences secondaires).

For whatever reason, the "looping" no longer seems to work when I embed a video into a Blogger post. Either YouTube or Blogger has changed something, I guess. Looping (replaying the video over and over again) also doesn't work with older slideshows where it used to work. Sigh....

17 February 2021

Peafowl in an Oléron bird sanctuary

I mentioned yesterday that my friend Cheryl and I spent half a day walking around and taking photos in a bird sanctuary on the Île d'Oléron when we spent a week on the island. Cheryl was an amateur birder and was very excited to discover the sanctuary, called Le Marais d'Oléron, which we weren't aware of before we arrived. Sad to say, she passed away nearly five years ago now. We had been friends since 1973, when we were both grad students in the French department at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then we worked together in the software industry in Silicon Valley for 15 or so years. Cheryl traveled to France with us once in 2001, when we stayed in Vouvray, and then came to visit us in France in 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2011.

In French, the word for peacock is paon — it's a one-syllable word that rhymes with dans, Jean, and Caen (the city in Normandy). The peahen is the paonne, which is also a one-syllable word and rhymes with canne, Jeanne, and Antoine. When you pronounce paon and paonne, pretend the O isn't there.

16 February 2021

Maps, geography, etc.

I thought it might be a good idea to post a map of the Île d'Oléron. The island is about 18 miles from north to south, and about 7 miles wide at its widest point. I've added La Menounière to the map, which I found on the internet, so you can see where our gîte rural was located. There's a lighthouse at the northern tip of the island. At the southeastern corner there are a lot of oyster shacks and oyster farms. There's also a château down there. There's a passenger ferry that runs from that sort of knob of land on the east coast of the island over to the city of La Rochelle. We wanted to take it, and dogs are allowed, but it wasn't running because striking fisherman had blocked the entrance to the port at La Rochelle.

Here's map that shows a wider view. You can see La Rochelle and the Île de Ré to the north of Oléron, and Rochefort to the east. Bordeaux is about 2½ hours south. We didn't get to go to those cities on the 2008 trip. Oh, we could have, but going would have meant probably sitting in traffic for 90 minutes or so at the bridge, and the drive from La Menounière to La Rochelle takes about 90 minutes each way. So we would have spent four or five hours on the road. It wasn't worth it. Instead, over the course of the week, we went up to the top of the lighthouse. We poked around in Saint-Georges and Saint-Pierre. We saw the oyster farms and shacks and the château to the south. We also took a little train trip — with Callie — down to the sandy far southern tip of the island at Saint-Trojan-les-Bains. And Cheryl and I spent half a day taking photos in an interesting bird sanctuary and park at Dolus. That day, Walt stayed "home" with Callie and probably went for a walk on the beach.

P.S. Here in Saint-Aignan, our cold spell is over. I had a very pleasant walk in the vineyard yesterday afternoon without having to wear a hat, gloves, and a heavy coat. The temperature right now is about 50ºF instead of 25 and it'ss supposed to be in the mid-60s F by the end of the week and through the weekend. Maybe some of our yard work and home improvements will get done now.