Good Food Blog
La Rochelle for lunchPosted at 4:31PM, 20 February 2008 by Mary Cadogan - Food writer
La Rochelle, in the Charente Maritime on the west coast of France, is just a couple of hours drive from where we live. It's a place that should be well known to the English, if my school is anything to go by. It always seemed to be the town we had to write about in my French classes and I can still visualise the picture in my text book of the pretty port with its twin towers and lighthouses. These days, I only need half an excuse to go there, and it's a breeze from England as the local airport is serviced by two of the low cost airlines.
The first stop has got to be the covered market in the centre of the old town. Stalls spill out onto the surrounding streets selling the freshest of produce, but I always head straight for the fish and seafood stalls for a quick hit of ozone. I always feel like a kid in a sweet shop, as I am assaulted on all sides by the scents, colours and sheer noise of the place.
The great baskets of oysters are truly impressive, ranging from size zero which are the size of your fist to more the manageable fine claires. At this time of year the scallops are top notch, as are their small cousins the petoncles. At first glance these look like clams, but on closer inspection the shells are perfectly scallop shaped, usually grey in colour and covered in barnacles. They are hacked off the rocks just up the coastline at low tide, so they need thorough cleaning before you steam them and serve them with butter, which is the Charentais way.
After a great lunch of mouclade, the local mussel dish with a spicy creamy sauce, we head off up the coast to try and find some free food of our own. The spit of land called Fouras just south of La Rochelle is a favourite hunting ground and we come across groups of families scrabbling among the rocks with their hammers, buckets and baskets full of oysters (but no petoncles, sadly). They tell us they can fill their baskets in around an hour, but we find only tiny ones not worth eating. Most oysters we buy in the markets are brought in from the sea to be finished off in clear water for a milder flavour, but these oysters have a full-on sea-salty taste.
Not having the skills or equipment to harvest our own free supper, we content ourselves by buying some from the little stalls set up along the roadside as we head off home. Note to self: must buy small hammer, gloves and basket!