A GREAT ancient port is something to savour and stay in the memory bank a long time… the classic fishing port as well the notable drinking variety.
I was privileged get a close-up look at both sorts during a road trip to France, staying in the picturesque gem of La Rochelle and also getting my hands on a rather special Noval Nacional 1963 vintage port.
'The wonderful weekend underlined what a joy eating and drinking can be – especially in such a bountiful part of France as the Charente-Maritime region'
And hands were all that touched it, much as I wanted some to pass my lips – a look online will go some way to explain why a normal mortal couldn't even afford to sniff the cork without a Lottery win, let alone drink any of it.
The same applied to another bottle I cradled in my arms like a baby, when entrepreneur and wine dealer extraordinaire Philippe Pons handed me a Romanée-Conti 2002 with a broad smile that in retrospect might have carried a mixture of pride, apprehension and fear, as well as an unspoken challenge not to drop it or shake it up.
The tour of Philippe's amazing vaulted cellars, a Fort Knox-secure secret treasure house hidden under several of La Rochelle's historic buildings behind the Quai Duperré, was part of an outstanding gastro treat in an area already renowned for its food and drink.
That was all down to Philippe as well, along with his charming wife Loi, who invited us to share a family Sunday lunch at their discreet apartment. It was pleasure enough to be greeted with a glass of premier cru Champagne, but as the delicious traditional meal went on, we moved on to a 2011 M. Chapoutier Coteau de Chery Condrieu, made from grapes hand-picked in a vineyard dating back to Roman times and bought 'en primeur' – ordered and paid for in advance before bottling in the hope of a fine vintage. And oh, it certainly is!
But then came one of those moments that will linger for a long, long time… a taste of nectar that would tempt a saint, with a sublime 2003 Huet Vouvray Cuvée Constance, the domaine's flagship dessert wine, made from hand-selected grapes afflicted by 'noble rot'.
Honoured? I'll say – and an experience well worth waiting more than a decade to enjoy. That wonderful weekend underlined what a joy eating and drinking can be – especially in such a bountiful part of France as the Charente-Maritime region.
The richness is very much on show at the town market, with a huge array and variety of produce from lake, sea and land, along with neighbouring cafés where you can often enjoy tastes of it, sitting in the sun and sipping a crisp white white along with a few oysters or langoustines served fresh from the stall.
The market is huge and very, very French, full of sights and smells to whet the appetite, but while you marvel at the range of meats, fish, vegetables, cheeses, breads, pastries, wines and local specialities on offer, it pays to curb your enthusiasm and look carefully at the prices.
A land of plenty, certainly, but just because it's a market does not mean that things are cheap – sometimes far from it. There lots of things that you can't easily get back in the UK, like farmhouse cheeses and home-made patés, breads and patisserie, so it's great to indulge in a few treats for snack lunches.
But beware of temptations like the fish – being in an Atlantic fishing port doesn't mean you're going to get a bargain.
Fish stalls piled high with all manner of seafood stretched from one end of the market hall to the other, and there were more stalls outside laden with the day's catch and mounds of live and cooked shellfish, which had mouths watering and wallets opening…but then common sense kicked in, with the realisation that it was probably a better deal to eat out in one of the many restaurants, bistros or cafés.
Why? For a start, a clumsily-filleted chunk of wet fish bought on impulse by our travelling companion blew what would have been my entire day's food allowance. And then there were the crab claws – an all-time favourite, especially with a bottle of chilled white wine (most will do!) and some freshly-baked bread – but ruled out in La Rock because the price was just silly, at around twice the sum per kilo charged back near home by fishmonger George Wilson, who brings them fresh from our coast every day.
If you really want to push the boat out on food, there's Christopher Coutanceau's two-Michelin-star rotunda restaurant down by the water, but there are some other cracking places to eat just a little further back from the harbourside tourist haunts, where you pay for the privilege of being in a posh place and being on show.
Almost on the Quai, though, is a handy breakfast pit-stop with a mouth-watering window display – O'dèlices de Vero – much used by locals, where you can quickly be seduced by delicious croissants and apricot pastries, along with fragrant coffee and free wi-fi into the bargain (see their Facebook page).
Lunch or snack time means a stroll towards the marina and the Roger Sicard shop, a branch of which seems to be the regional French equivalent of our own Greggs chain, with outlets in every town in and around the Vendée and a reputation built on a delicious, signature golden delight . . . brioche. Brioche of every variety is on offer, but Sicard also sells breads, viennoiseries, patisseries and desserts on top of all sorts of sandwich-based snacks for all budgets.
Time, then, for a 'student' special, a grilled cheese panini or baguette, fresh fries and a drink, and a seat in a prime location on Sicard's section of a decking terrace shared with some decidedly more expensive adjoining restaurants – and the shared people-watching view didn't cost a thing!
Coffee time in the afternoon, or wine-o'clock as the sun touches many a yardarm, and head for the waterside again, this time to Au Bout du Rouleau, a popular no-nonsense café/bar by the yacht basin, a great spot for watching anything at all, but especially the boating crowd, the basin locks and the impressive Gabut bascule bridge.
And so to dinner,. a street or so back from the main drag and its views of the iconic harbour towers, to another place with a very 'local' feel, a friendly bar/restaurant/crêperie called Le Rescator. No crisp white tablecloths and supercilious staff in matching uniforms, but great no-fancy-frills food, served promptly by the guys in charge and tasting just fine.
With a salade Savoyarde, a galette, crevettes (a solid helping of 15) and drinks for three costing just €83, it didn't break the bank, either.
Phare de BaleinesAnother of La Rock's bridges links up to the Île de Ré, where a it's also fun to watch the world go by from a pavement café in the picturesque, almost Cornish-feel village of St Martin, before heading off to the Phare des Baleines lighthouse and its local craft/produce market, to stock up on sea salt from the families who actually harvest it traditionally from the nearby evaporation pans. After calling at the Roger Sicard HQ at Saint-Jean-de-Beugné – a fragrant spot known as 'village de la brioche' – to load up the car on the drive back to St Malo, it was time for the final culinary treat before re-crossing the Channel on the trip home, courtesy of Brittany Ferries.
The relaxing, return voyage to Portsmouth could almost convince a long-standing cruise-ophobe like me to take a holiday afloat, if the food could be up to the standard we enjoyed on board the Bretagne. The food was plentiful and delicious, with a decidedly French accent, which was a great apéritif for our road trip on the way to France, and a splendid digestif to round it off on the way back.
The hors d'oeuvres buffet was the first culinary shock for anyone used to travelling just on short-haul ferries (or Greek ones!), with a sumptuous array of goodies – the outstanding seafood alone was an agonising temptation, risking a major overload with no room left for the rest of the meal.
A rolled sole fillet 'turban; lamb and langoustine 'terre et mer' with niçoise veg; and a puff pastry veggie option called 'feuilleté aux legumes, curry d'aubergine' were the main events, before the dessert buffet… a sweet equivalent of the starter display, almost spoiling us for choice.
A nice spot of wine from the extensive list helped it all along and had us reaching for the timetables for another trip very soon.
Dave Graham drove to Portsmouth for a painless boarding on the Bretagne, and opted for a bit of comfort with an outside cabin – details on the Brittany Ferries website. The sat-nav directed drive to and from La Rochelle was also straightforward, with a couple of stops for coffee along the way.
An alternative would be to fly to Bordeaux (Flybe operate a direct route from Manchester) and hire a car for the short drive to La Rock.
Dave Graham is a member of the team at SilverTravelAdvisor.com and a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.
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