FRANCE The Vendee coast is full of food and drink delights
If the acres of wide, sandy beaches, pine forests and pretty harbours aren’t reason enough to visit France’s Atlantic coast, the rich food culture and wealth of seafood more than tip the balance
Western France’s Vendée coast is blessed with more than 90 miles of white sandy beaches. They’re quiet by European standards (even in July when we went), and with a backdrop of fragrant pine trees and the Atlantic Ocean, it’sa glorious setting for a family holiday. Dotted along this lovely stretch of coast are villages built around harbours, oyster beds and islands, and bike paths that run from Noirmoutier to Bourgenay.
The area has a rich food culture, from the oyster trade in the Bay of Bourgneuf and sardines from St-gilles-croix-devie, to brioche (‘better than Paris!’, you’ll be told), charcuterie and glistening white salt. Local Noirmoutier potatoes are used to make posh bags of crisps.
The seaside towns, which are largely dependent on tourism, come alive in the summer. While frites, pizza and fish and chips are on offer – try hake from the La Roulotte van (laroulotte-fish-n-chips.com) – so are moules, platters of fruits de mer and dishes of ‘mogettes’ (white haricot beans), as well as the delicious custard tart, flan maraîchin.
We anchored ourselves in the popular Saint-jean-de-monts, which has a substantial beach, a wide esplanade and a crop of decent cafés and restaurants. A short car journey north is one of France’s more interesting roads, the Passage du Gois (passable only for a couple of hours each day before it’s submerged), which leads to the island of Noirmoutier. The thing to do here is trundle onto the track, leap out of your car and dig quickly for clams to take home, or – in our case – let go again, then saunter onwards as if the tide was not imminently on the turn. Once on the island, you can drive past the canals, salt marshes and whitewashed houses to the tiny port of l'herbaudière, and have lunch at a café on the harbour. Head to Maison Foucher (+33 7 71 88 81 20) in Noirmoutier-en-l'île for high-end groceries, and stop for a bag of sea salt at the Marais Salants de Bonne Pogne salt marshes in La Guérinière (+33 2 51 39 96 63), as you head for the bridge, now your only way off the island.
To the south in Les Sables d’olonne, a few streets back, you’ll find Les Halles Gourmandes (hallesgourmandes.net) a market stuffed with fruit, vegetables, bread and seafood. Upstairs is the ‘bio’ or organic section, ideal for your picnic or something to take home. On the road behind, you’ll find La Sablaise (lasablaise.fr), a shop specialising in preserved seafood and fish.
LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
It’s easy to think you’ll always be able to find somewhere to eat in such a food-obsessed country, but outside trading hours in smalltown France, you can find yourself truly stuck. Supermarkets close on Sunday afternoons and don’t open as late as those in the UK on weeknights, so even these may not be
an option if you’ve missed the boat for dinner. Bakeries, too, are closed from about 1-3.30pm, so a sandwich is out of the question for a late lunch, though some have a baguette vending machine outside. All the local produce at the Super U supermarket at Les Sentiers du Marais, Saint-jean-de-monts, is clearly labelled – an absolute boon for visitors – so it’s worth a trip to stock up if you’re selfcatering on your trip.
French farmers’ markets generally run from 8am-1pm. Notre-dame-de Monts has a big one outside the Super U on Sundays, and Saint Jean de Monts has a food market by the church in Place Jean Yole daily from April-september. You’ll find a full list at vendee-tourism.co.uk.
La gâche is the buttery, better version of brioche (so said the receptionist we left our bakery order with each morning). Classified PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), la gâche has cream added to its dough. To round off a day (or kick-start an evening) try La Troussepinette, an aperitif made with the spring shoots of the sloe or blackthorn bush.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in a two-bed villa with a private pool on the outskirts of town at Domaine de Vertmarines. There’s a reception where you can order breakfast (having freshly-baked croissants delivered is one of the most civilised services ever) and keep in touch via the free Wi-fi (invaluable with the kids and their devices). A week’s stay in a similar villa to ours in May costs from £85.75 per person (£343 for four). In the summer peak, however (18 August onwards), the price increases to £331.75 per person. To book, contact Summer France (020 3475 4756, summerfrance.co.uk)
Our villa and car were provided courtesy of Summer France.
Shop at Les Halles Gourmandes Sandy beaches at St-gilles-croix-de-vie Stroll the cobbled streets Don't leave without trying the local oysters
Watch the world go by at Le Casier The brioche is said to be 'better than Paris' The café at Sainte-hilairede-riez beach Local potatoes – used to make fancy crisps