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Along the western coast of France, cushioned between Normandy to the north and Bordeaux to the south, the department of Charente-Maritime occupies a swatch of pebbled shoreline and three islands. Much of the region’s tourism is focused around capital city La Rochelle, an ancient fortification kissing the Bay of Biscay. But there is much more to see in Charente-Maritime: The pastel shutters and rambling hollyhocks that adorn the area’s seaside villages, and the rugged beauty of wild island beaches, are unmatched. A thousand miles of bike and walking paths, prolonged stretches of seashore, and mild, sunny weather make Charente-Maritime an ideal destination for anyone who appreciates the great outdoors. But there is also much to taste in Charente-Maritime, where culinary traditions have been honed by centuries of practiced craftsmanship. The département may not enjoy the same notoriety as its more celebrated neighbors, but this is not for lack of merit.
Like elsewhere in France, it’s all about terroir here, what the local land produces—it always has been, long before “locavore” became a buzzword elsewhere—and Charente-Maritime produces a bounty indeed. Since the Middle Ages, this region has used fluctuating ocean tides to its advantage, harvesting mussels, oysters, and sea salt in particular. Small producers have long churned barrels of pineau, a local drink made from blending wine with cognac. In the waters surrounding the three islands, Île de Ré, Île d’Aix, and Île d’Oléron, fishermen reel in a diverse range of fish and shellfish daily. Further inland, mineral-rich soil produces excellent fruits, vegetables, and wine. So pull up a seat on a terrace and order a round of fruits de mer crowded with shellfish both known and unknown. Surrender to a glass of pineau. You won’t be sorry you did. —Charente-Maritime text and photos by Cristina Sciarra
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