A Salty Start for 2018
If unique is what the Tour de France was looking for, they certainly found it once again when they announced the Grand Depart of the 2018 Tour in L’île de Noirmoutier. Just like in 2016 when the Tour started by crossing the causeway into the Manche Department, the peloton will again cross the ocean over the Passage du Gois. Unitl 1971, this was the only way to get to L’Ile. While there’s much to do on this tiny island of only 49 square kilometers, it is the salt history that is fascinating. While the Benedictine monks initially “farmed” salt in the marshes off the coast in the 5th century, the Vikings finally captured the island in 835. This was the first of many Viking outposts in the Loire region. Aside from mining salt, like is done in much of Alpine Europe, the second best method of mining salt is through marshland evaporation of ocean water. Too cold and wet, the Viking’s homeland in Scandanavia was ill-suited for salt production and salt was a critical commodity in the ancient world. At Noirmoutier, ponds were filled and drained to allow ideal conditions for evaporation in as little as 48 hours. Today, this ancient method of harvesting the salt ponds by hand continues. Across the island, 100 farmers operate about 3,000 ponds, or œillets, each producing 1 ton of salt annually. In the prime of summer, the fleur de sel is the most desired salt evokes a subtle violet flavor that is sought-after by chefs to season all kinds of other local products like potatoes and of course fish. What a delightful way to start our 2018 adventure.
The peloton will surely fight the crosswinds on Stage 1 of the 2018 Tour de France, but the scenery will be spectacular as the route hugs the Vendee Atlantic coastline. Only some 63 kilometers into the race, we hit our first wine region. The small and largely undiscovered Fiefs-Vendéens Brem AOC is a subset of the greater and more well-known Loire Valley and one of three Fiefs-Vendee varietals that combined only amount to 490 hectares (1,210 acres) of vineyards. Like most French wines, the history of Vendeen wine dates back at least to the Romans, but as the name indicates, the wine flourished in the feudal period of the Middle Ages and centered around Abbeys and fiefs. Here in the western maritime portions of the highly variable Loire wine region, the wines are known for their dry, non-aromatic whites. With fish being a staple food in this area, it’s no wonder that a white wine dominates production. The Brem carries a light apple flavor. Here, the grapes are predominantly Chenin and Grolleau. Even the red and rosé’s are light. Along the route, in Vertou, try Domaine Saint Nicolas. It’s a more modern-looking and organic winery, but one that can be found internationally and in the U.S. and at good value. With Oceanside settings and refreshing wines, this is an AOC to show-off one’s knowledge of world-class wines.
A Napoleonic Coup
Historically, Fontenay-le-Comte has been the seat of the Vendee. In fact, when the Vendee became a Department during the French Revolution, Fontenay became its leader. Only one problem, “Comte” in French has too much aristocratic connotations and the republican assembly renamed the town Fonetnay-le-Peuple, for the people. The town, however, was a hot spot for royalist and republican fervor known across the Department as the Vendée War with the north generally being pro-monarchy and the south being republican in sympathy. In total, some 200,000 died in this localized conflict alone as both sides fought for control of the department. Fontenay-le-Comte illustrates the widespread violence and general civil war that waged throughout France in the last decade of the 18th century. It was not just a terror that befell Paris, but an intense struggle that gripped even the most unsuspecting of places. After a short control by the royalists, the republicans took the town for good in 1793. This erratic, and anti-royalist sentiment, however, made Fontenay too radical for the newly crowned Napoleon. Only a decade after the Vendée War, Bonaparte moved the Vendée capital fifty kilometers to the northwest, to a new town he could control, called Roche-sur-Yon … the finish of Stage 2.