The salt maker on the Ré Island : the secrets of white gold

Ars-en-Ré
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The salt maker on the ...

They are a hundred to perpetuate the tradition of white gold on the Ile de Ré , since the 11th century, when the development of the first salt marshes shaped this landscape . Pools of light , delimited by fine clay paths , small white pyramidal mounds aligned with care ... The salt marshes of Ré , it is almost vernacular architecture! Discover how the coarse salt from Île de Ré is produced , as well as the crunchy and delicate Fleur de sel from Île de Ré , come and meet the Salt Makers and share their daily life, punctuated by ancestral labor ... To be preserved at all costs !

 


The saunantes areas, these magic "tiles" ...

It's almost magic, to see the Fleur de sel crystallize like a layer of caramel on a crème brûlée, in a very thin film on the surface of the water . Barely 2 to 3 cm of water, this is what remains in the " saunante area ", also colloquially called by the salt makers " tile " ( Fleur de sel and coarse salt harvest basin, 'about 5mx5m), at the end of the day. The job of a salt maker is the daily operation of a complex water circuit , developed by monks almost a millennium ago on the Ile de Ré.

First, there is the ocean , because to make salt, you will agree, you need salty sea water! The whole game consists in evaporating the water in a natural way , thanks to the sun's rays which heat the water. Weather plays a crucial role in this business, 100% subject to climatic hazards . Rain ? No salt (the water becomes too brackish ) and it is sometimes whole days of waiting during the summer, before being able to harvest again.


The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The magic lights of the salt marsh in the early morning. Do not hesitate to get up early, on vacation on the Ile de Ré, to admire this spectacle!

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

Light plays at dawn.


In the spring , the salt worker (or the salt maker because there are also women!) Gets to work (even if he never stops), he removes the mud from the different pools and spreads it on the paths: he " Fat ".
In summer , from June to September, it harvests. For this, it is necessary to circulate the water in the different basins:

  • The vasais receives water from the ocean thanks to the strong tides. Everything is played by gravity, the vasais is the " highest " pool. As the name almost indicates, this is where the silt settles and settles at the bottom of the basin.
  • Then the water passes into the trades , thanks to a water inlet pipe with plugs (the groûmat). It covers several kilometers to the marsh field which contains the saunantes areas .

In autumn , at the end of the season (September), salt is brought in to the Cooperative: the cart .
In winter , the salt worker rests (they deserved it) and resumes the maintenance of the marshes. Some fallow marshes are restored, others are drowned in seawater to protect them from frost.


The Vasais Les Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The vasais

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The profession

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The fleur de sel, which forms in the marsh field. Observe the small plates on the surface ...


Two salts, 3 products

The salt marshes on the Ile de Ré produce 3 products sold by the Coopérative des Sauniers on the Ile de Ré . They are a hundred to exercise this profession on the island and about 70 are members of the Cooperative, which was born in 1942. Its role? Collect, store salt, condition it, market it. Why join together? Cédric, a young salt maker who took over a salt marsh a few years ago, explains to me that the Cooperative allows the transmission of the know-how and values of this unusual profession. There is a collective spirit of mutual aid which is essential for those who settle down and whose vocation is not (yet).

In the past, in the 19th century, there were 1,000 salt workers on the island and 30,000 tonnes of coarse salt were produced each year. The development of rail transport and the advent of cold storage has made salt obsolete (when it was the only means of food preservation in the past). Demand drops, supply collapses, the profession, its habits and customs with ... But today, the salt makers represent more than salt! It is also the landscape identity of the Ile de Ré , the local culture and a precious product that consumers are learning to reclaim in their cuisine.

There is the coarse salt , which is drawn in the morning, we will make the water ripple in the saunante area with a " simoussi ". We group it on one side and gather it at the edge of the " tile ". With a " souvron " we make a small mound in the shape of a pyramid that we let dry for a whole day. Two days later, very early on, the salt worker goes on a tractor, he picks up the mound of salt in his trailer and transports it to his pile of salt (summer harvest) which will then be sent to the Cooperative in September storage before packaging. In a saunante area, the salt is harvested every other day, giving about 40kg per harvest.


The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

First, we push by making wavelets

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

Then we pull and combine the coarse salt on one side

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The mounds that we then shape into pyramids, we let them dry for a day

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

In the morning at dawn, with the tractor we pick up the salt pyramids

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

They are then taken with the tractor to the pile of salt which will then be transported to the Cooperative

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The salt of life…


There is also the Fleur de sel , which is picked in the afternoon. It's impressive, Cédric takes me on his marsh field . In 1 to 2 hours, we see the formation of small crystallizations on the surface, which come together to form only a thin film in one piece. The Fleur de sel is fragile , it floats on the surface, which the salt worker comes to touch with " a lousse ". This tool is a kind of landing net where the Fleur de sel crystals are deposited. You need a big helping hand, delicate and muscular at the same time, because there is a strong leverage with the tool, which makes the forearms work!

And the fine salt ? It is the third product and it is in fact coarse salt, dried and then finely ground ! The fine salt from the Coopérative des Sauniers on Île de Ré is therefore slightly tinged with gray and contains no anti-caking agents.


The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

It's time to harvest the fleur de sel from the surface of the saunante area. Do you see the thin white film?

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The fleur de sel slowly picks up

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

I'll try: it's very difficult…

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

Salt makers Cédric.

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

Hugues Leprince on the right, and Denis Dupré

The salt marsh: a fragile ecosystem

About 300 species of birds live in the salt marshes: seagulls, herons, egrets, terns ... A remarkable flora also grows there, like the samphire : an alga that is sold as a condiment , c 'is delicious. The salt worker by his work, helps to maintain a biodiversity specific to the Ile de Ré, it protects this rich ecosystem .

It is a whole economic environment which is also preserved. The Coopérative des Sauniers de l'île de Ré has 70 member salt workers and employs 20 people. It creates tourism which ensures a quality of life in this natural and quite wild territory of the north of the Ile de Ré.


The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

Waders feast in the swamp

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

Seagulls always find something to snack on

The Sauniers on the Ile de Ré

The delicious samphire (here at the end of the season, it starts to blush)


Find out more

  • Meet at the Cabane des Sauniers , in Ars-en-Ré. You can find there all the products marketed by the Cooperative: salt with aromatics, jars, canvas bags, various packaging, some of which are pretty for gifts. Pebbles of salt, caramel, samphire, salt hands, jams, chocolates produced with salt…
  • Consult the magnificent Saunier de Ré island website , rich in additional explanations, interviews and splendid photos. There is also an online store! You will find Sauniers de l'Ile de Ré products everywhere in France, in grocery stores and even some supermarkets.
  • Consult the Sauniers de l'Ile de Ré file on the Charente Maritime Guide


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