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Food in the Vendee

The Vendée can be justly proud of a culinary heritage that extends from the coast to its rolling pastures.



Fish & Shellfish (& Snails)


With its long coastline, it is no surprise that seafood features strongly in the cooking of the Vendée.  High-quality fresh sish is easily available fishmongers, supermarkets, markets and, in some coastal towns, directly from fishermen.


Dover and lemon sole, sardines, bass, brill, gurnard, mackerel and sea bream are well-known species that are landed fresh on the coast of the Vendée along with cod, ling and tuna from further afield.  Less well known are species like maigre, a type of fish known as a “drum” due to the curious sounds it makes.. Maigre is fished in the Bay of Biscay and is consumed only locally because it really doesn’t travel well.  The flesh of maigre rewards delicate cooking – it is delicious simply poached in white wine and served with new season potatoes from Noirmoutier and a hollandaise sauce.  


The marais provides a selection of fresh water fish – eels (anguilles), pike (brochet) and frogs’ legs (cuisses de grenouilles.  OK: not a fish, but living close by and actually pretty good when cooked à la Luçonnais – see recipes below) all appearing on menus featuring local dishes.


Oysters and mussels are reared in vast numbers on the coast of the Vendée.  Vendéen Oysters have an excellent culinary reputation and are available year round (not just when there is an “r” in the month) from markets, fishmongers, supermarkets and (particularly during the run up to Christmas & New Year) local shops & bakeries.  They are not an expensive treat costing only  a few euros per kilo.  Most oysters offered for sale are the Pacific or “cup” variety (characterised by a rough shell and an irregular form), though sometimes native oysters (smoother, flatter and more-or-less circular in shape) are available.  Oysters are sorted into sizes ranging from 5 (small) to 0 (large). Traditionally, 5s are offered for aperitifs, 4s for entrées and 3s for main course platters, but it’s all a matter of personal taste. Personally, I prefer 5s across the board even if it means more work to prepare them because I think the flavour is at its best.  The larger sizes 2 to 0 command a premium but are worth buying if you plan to actually cook the oysters.


Oysters can be eaten raw or cooked and are best consumed on the day of purchase.  We provide shucking knives for oysters in all our gites  If eaten raw, the traditional dressing is white wine vinegar to which very finely chopped shallots have been added.  Drink bone dry whites such a muscadet sur lie or a gros plant from the region.


Oysters are also delicious cooked: in the Vendée  the traditional approach is to allow 6 or 8 big oysters per person and to grill them.  Place the open oysters on the grill with a pinch of finely chopped shallots, a nut of sweet butter and a grind of pepper in each.  They should be cooked just until the meat detaches from the shell and forms a little morsel.  


Mussels are also available ready-for-the-pan at very low cost. The mussel quintessential mussel dishes of the Vendée are éclade and mouclade.


Eclade is a fine open air dish, though for obvious reasons of fire safety is best done on a BBQ grill rather than in the traditional setting of coastal pine woods. A flat plank of wood needs to be soaked for at least an hour in water and then placed on the grill.  Onto this is arranges a closely-packed layer of mussels.  The mussels are then covered in a layer of dried pine needles (about 2cm thick is enough) and this is then set alight at the four corners.  The fire is then fanned like mad using a piece of cardboard with more pine needles being added as needed to keep it burning for about 4 minutes by which time the mussels are cooked.  Eat them with good bread and Vendéen butter.


Mouclade is an iconic dish of the Vendée. It is a happy marriage of mussels with white wine, butter, spices (notably saffron) and crème fraîche. – there’s a recipe further down, and the dish can be found on many restaurant menus.


Snails (escargots) are not seafood but are molluscs and so would seem to have a natural fit in this section. They are as popular in the Vendée as anywhere else in France and after rain it is a common to see people working the verges and field margins in search of this particular delicacy. The local dish to look out for is petits gris en matelote in which the snails are with garlic and ham in red wine (recipe below).



Poultry, Meat & Game


Poultry are raised in large numbers in the Vendée. Particularly well regarded are the free-range chickens raised around the town of Challans. and if you can find the breed called  the noire de Challans all the better as this produces a dense meat of particularly fine flavour that roasts very well.  Top quality duck are reared also and can be found whole or portioned in butchers, markets and supermarkets across the département. It comes as a surprise to many to learn that the Vendée is the département that produces the largest quantity of foie gras in France.


Game is available in autumn and winter months, and a traditional pâté made from wild rabbit (though these days farmed rabbit is more commonly used and there is a recipe below for this) is highly esteemed. Venison and boar are sometimes available, as are game birds. A more unusual delicacy is a pâté made from wild coypu that breed in large numbers on the marais.


Sheep raised on the salt marshes in the north of the Vendée are the source of expensive but succulent lamb and mutton with a characteristic “iodised” flavour.  Beef produced from locally reared parthenaise cattle has an exceptional taste and texture and is available from many butchers and markets.  Rather rarer, and for the most part restricted to the South Vendée, is beef and veal produced from the maraichine breed which came close to extinction in the late 1980s but is now thriving, albeit on a very local scale. Particularly sought after is veal from the maraichine, which is reared free range on a diet of milk and grass to give a wonderfully tender pink meat that is a million miles from the flabby, pallid, stuff produced via intensive farming.


Pigs are farmed to produce Vendéen ham.  This is a raw-cured ham that has a distinctive, sweetish, flavour.  The best hams for curing come from outdoor-reared pigs and carry the “Label Rogue” designation of quality. To make a Vendéen ham, the leg is boned out and the meat rubbed (by hand) with sea salt, a blend of herbs and spices (bay leaves, thyme and cinnamon) and a fruit eau de vie.  It is then pressed and allowed to dry and mature for 3 or 4 months.  Vendéen ham can be served raw in fine slices (often with melon or simply with bread) or cut into thick slices and either grilled or fried rather like bacon.  When cooked is often served with locally grown white haricot beans known as mogettes.


Cheese


For a département not particularly considered as a great cheese manufacturing region, the Vendée does seem to produce rather a lot of the stuff, some of it very good indeed.


Best known outside of the Vendée are three cows milk cheeses: Halbran, Mizotte and Fleur d’Aunis.


Halbran, probably the most ancient of the three, has a thin, greyish rind, a mild but distinctive flavour and a smooth, creamy texture.  It makes a fine sandwich with a split baguette and a good tomato. The name comes from a local patois word meaning a duckling that has not yet learned how to fly. Lord knows why.


Mizotte is a pungent, washed cheese with a yellow rind. Traditionally, the cheese is washed with white wine and has a soft texture. It melts well. The name comes from a another local word, this time the name for a salt marsh grass, Puccinellia maritime known as sea poa grass in English.


Fleur d’Aunis is another yellow rind cheese, though in this case the washing is done with the aperitif Pineau de Charantes, a blend of grape juice, sugar and Cognac.  It is another pungent cheese with a smooth, fairly soft, texture.


Aside from the “big three” there are dozens of lesser known cheeses that are easy enough to find the locality, but seldom seen outside.


The dairy at nearby Maillezais makes a range of cheeses in all kinds of shapes, sizes and flavours from locally produced cow, goat and ewe milk. These can be bought directly from them at the Union Laiterie Venise Verte or can be found in local supermarkets. The half goats’ / half cows’ milk soft cheese “Le Petit Maillezais” is particularly good as is the harder 100% cows’ milk Tomme de Vendée.


There is any number of small operations producing good quality goats’ cheeses. One of the best is conveniently located about a kilometre from us in Le Langon. Le Petit Langonnais is a range that runs from very young fromage frais right through to matured demi-sec cheeses.  These can be bought directly from the producer, Thierry Rousseau, or from a number of local outlets and really are very good cheeses indeed.


Préfou


What is préfou? Well, it’s garlic bread. After a fashion. Préfou is what garlic bread would like to be when it grows up. This is a speciality of bakery that has remained curiously specific to the Vendée with only small incursions into neighbouring départements  If it is made elsewhere in France it is invariably made from a baguette sliced along it’s length and from which the crumb is then removed. This is just not right at all.


The origin of préfou is a tale of necessity becoming the mother of invention Years ago, in the days when bread ovens were wood fired, brick-built affairs with no thermometers in sight, bakers would test the temperature by taking a bit of lightly leavened dough (préfou shouldn’t rise a great deal when cooked), flattening it out, and then tossing it into the hot oven to observe how long it took to cook.


Not wishing to waste the crispy treat, some bright spark hit upon the notion of splitting it and spreading the inside with a mixture of butter, salt and crushed garlic and in doing so gave the Vendée its quintessential aperitif snack, an ideal foil to cold beer, chilled wine or the local pre-dinner favourite, troussepinette.


The process was modified a little: the préfou was allowed a short rise only before being flattened, quickly pre-baked to halt the rise, then cooled, split, filled, packaged and chilled before being offered for sale for finishing at home in a hot oven. A number of variants on the filling are now offered – goats’ cheese, chorizo and gruyere, for instance, are commonly seen and are very good.


In the 1980s, préfou was available in only a handful of boulongeries, but it established itself and is now sold in boulangeries and supermarkets across the Vendée.


Sweet Stuff


The Vendée is famous for its brioche which is very different from the more usual fluted loaf sold in bakeries elsewhere in France. Here the dough is enriched with butter and orange flower water before being platted or formed into a lozenge shaped loaf called a gâche.  


Melons are grown in large numbers in the South Vendée and can be purchased at roadside stalls throughout the summer at very reasonable prices. They are of the “charantaise” type, a grey-green rind with a fragrant pink-orange flesh. They are best eaten at room temperature – chilling tends to dull the flavour.


Tourteau fromager is a kind of cake made (unusually) from fresh goats’ cheese. It has a characteristic very dark domed top and can be eaten as is or spread with butter, made into a bread & butter pudding or served with cream. It can be found in bakeries and on market stalls across the region.


Restaurants


For our selection of local restaurants see our Restaurant page.


Recipes


We have put together a few local traditional recipes for you.  Link to recipe page