Le Château d’Oléron-Saint-Martin-en-Ré (Charente-Maritime), 09/08/2020
The Tour (meaning the racers… and the “writing cook”!) took a day off in La Rochelle on Monday before a totally flat stage between the island of Oléron et the island of Ré (they are both connected to mainland by a bridge) through La Rochelle.
La Rochelle is a beautiful city on the Atlantic coast which, on top of being a beautiful city where it feels good to live with its “already-a-southern-city” atmosphere, is worth a special journey for:
· its exceptional vieux port (vieux port) and its two “chain towers”, its old shipowner houses and its fishermen neighborhood, and its plane tree shaded squares that would fit very well with those Beaudelaire’s verses : “There, all is order and loveliness,/ Luxury, calm and voluptuousness”…
· its surroundings with islands of Ré, Oléron, Aix, the old city of Brouage kept “as was” when it was a military harbor fortified by Richelieu… before the sea progressively withdrew a couple of miles away, and the many fortifications, inshore and offshore witnessing the strategic role of the region in the 17th and 18th centuries;
· and last but not least, the fish and shellfish caught or farmed in the area, between the islands and the Gironde estuary: oysters (the Fines de Claire, referring to the way they are “refined” in former salt marsh pools which, thanks to a micro algae, gives them an emerald color and an hazelnut taste, the best oysters in the world), mussels (the Bouchots named from the stakes on which those bivalvia are grown), sardines (from La Cotinière in Oléron), céteaux (a variety of small sole, so delicious and delicate), shrimps (the bouquet a small pink shrimp with a fabulous taste that, as a kid, I was fishing with a small round net between the rocks), langoustines (aka Norwegian lobsters), palourdes and praires (both, a type of clams with a very delicate taste and a very addictive iodine taste. Another bounty of my childhood foraging sessions ), langoustes (a lobster with no claws, or very small ones in fact, twice as good as the lobster... and twice as expensive too!), étrilles (a crab of a similar species as the soft shell crab, that I used to fish from a dam with a net dropped in the water, named balance), etc.
Well, you might have guessed that I am in love for this region. In fact, since the age of 10, I have spent most of my summer and other vacations in the island of Oléron, camping there before my parents bought a small house in a pine-tree forest 200 feet from a 5-mile long, blond, and fine sand beach! There, I used to sail, windsurf, bike, fish or forage all types of fish and shellfish... Needless to say that I know every turn and every hill (easy, there are very few of them) of the roads biked by the Tour de France racers yesterday!
Églade makes me glad
Églade is probably the iconic specialty of the area. The word comes from aiguille (needles) obviously referring to the pine needles used to cook this dish really unique. Aiguillade became églade and also éclade. If the latter term might be now the most common one as this dish has become very popular in the upper class island of Ré, the first time I had it, more than 50 years ago in Oléron, this was an églade. So, I stick to this word… plus it rhymes with glad!
Show me your mussels
Making an églade is the simplest dish in the world, and probably the best way ever to prepare mussels. The only difficulty is to find the right pine needles. Then you just need a natural wood board, of a minimum thickness of 1”, on which you will dispose the mussels following a star-shaped pattern. Cover the mussels with a thick layer of dry pine needles and ignite the needles. The heat created by the flaming needles will be just the right amount to open the mussels. It's simply delicious, as the mussels are just cooked perfectly and flavored with the pine sap flavors.
* During the Tour de France, combining two of my passions, biking and cooking, I will try to present (almost) every day a recipe from ) the route followed by the peloton.
Levels of difficulty
The only difficulty is in fact to find good pine needles
Ingredients and material
1. A safe place
Last but not least, of course, it should be done outside in a safe and open place (gravel or grass)
2. A board:
A (not painted, not varnished, not treated of course) 1+ inch thick wood board, large enough to accommodate a sufficient quantity of mussels.
A little trick is to put 4 to 6 nails in the middle of the board. Those will help to hold the first mussels of your star pattern.
Some people soak the board in water to avoid that it takes on fire (which never happened).
Count 1/1.5 lb. per head for a main course and 0.5 lb. for an aperitif/starter.
Use big mussels (outside and inside). In the USA, I particularly like the wild black mussels from Maine (Moosabec)
The mussels should be rinsed and roughly cleaned, but unlike traditionally cooked mussel dishes, you can be lazy on that, the flames will do the job!
4. Pine needles
Don’t choose any pine needles, and in particular don’t use those from cedars or the likes. First, they are not adapted for the églade, but must importantly, they are not adapted for cooking as they are said to be toxic.
Choose the long and thin needles from the pine trees growing by the seaside in a sunny climate, ensuring that the needles are dry and flavorful: stone pines (also named umbrella or parasol pines, and incidentally those giving the pine nuts) or maritime pines.
Plan a sufficient quantity to cover your board with an 8/10" layer, and some more in the possible case where you have to further cook the mussels not opened after the first “flambée”.
5. A lighter or a cooking torch!
To ignite the needles, of course, not to smoke a cigarette…
They will be very useful to blow on the fire to ensure that all the needles burn, and to blow out the ashes at the end. Otherwise, a thick cardboard sheet… or a bike pump will do the job!
1. In fact, the trickiest part is the very start, i.e. laying out the mussels on the board. The mussels should not lay flat, but “on the edge”. In this respect, there are 2 schools (yes, indeed!). Either you lay them on the “hinge” edge so that they open “up” (meaning facing the sky) and the juice remains in the shell, or you lay them on the opening edge so that they open “down” (facing the board), which protects the mussel from the ashes. Let’s say that in the US, I use the “clean” way… and the “juicy” way in France!
2. Position the needles, intricating them in order to form a star pattern (see picture). Keeping the first ones standing up on edge (either the “clean” or the “juicy” one) might be a bit tricky as they will keep on falling. This is where the 4-6 nails knocked in the board can prove very useful. Otherwise, you can take a few needles and dispose them in a star-shape to help holding those first mussels. Once the first ones are positioned, it becomes easier to dispose the other ones.
3. Then, cover the mussels with a layer of needles, of around 8/10 inches thick, ignite them… and enjoy the beautiful flame if you do it at night, and soon you will hear the mussels “singing” as they open. Let the fire extinguish by itself, but use the bellows if some blocks of needles are not totally burned. It only lasts a couple of minutes. It is possible that you will need a second flambée in case if some mussels, positioned outside and less exposed to the fire, did not open.
4. Then, blow away the ashes and possible twigs mixed with the needles, using the bellows (better) or a piece of cardboard, a bellows or even a bike/mattress pump.
5. They are now ready to eat, either directly around the board, or on the table. As it is a “dirty” dish, I like to serve it with another dirty dish such as fingerling potatoes BBQed with their skin. Accompanied with a bottle of Muscadet or a Pineau des Charentes, the local Cognac fortified wine… and a roll of paper towel! As I said somewhere else, it is deliciously decadent