The Bonnotte potato festival


The island of Noirmoutier





1 Day

The Bonnotte potato festival, La fête de la Bonnotte

Here you can taste the most expensive potatoes in the world, walk on the road that disappears twice a day under the sea, visit a greenhouse with butterflies, and buy a ,,white gold” with different flavours

Long time ago, when I flew from Portugal, I noticed an island that looked like a comet with a long tail. At home, I found it on the map and discovered that its name is Noirmoutier. I had good grades in geography, but I have never heard about it in my whole life... How is it possible?! Then I read about its attractions and I knew I would visit it one day…

The island lies off the Atlantic coast of France, in the Bay of Biscay, an hour from Nantes. The road on the mainland runs through the plain, quite similar to the Netherlands – canals alternate with meadows with grazing cows. No wonder that the area is known for dairy products, especially butter. According to statistics, the French are top consumers in the world, consuming about 8 kilos a year per capita. I happened to see a documentary about it – imagine, that there are companies constantly inventing new tastes (with oranges, cranberries) and testing them on volunteers who, sitting in front of a computer, get a buttered bread and immediately evaluate the taste, colour and consistency...

Noirmoutier has ten thousand inhabitants; it is approximately 25 kilometres long and its width varies from 500 metres to 12 kilometres. Since 1971 it has been connected to the mainland by a bridge, which was welcomed in particular by the French - I don't know why, but the islands in the Atlantic are preferred predominantly by local tourists.

The largest settlement is Noirmoutier-en-l'Île, a nice town with mostly whitewashed houses. Hand painted mailboxes with seagulls or decorated with shells and street number tiles with flowers contribute to the city's unique atmosphere. Haha, and these people apparently have a sense of humour, I thought, looking at the Beware of dog sign at one door: "Attention, chien bizarre!" (Attention, weird dog!)

In the hotel I got tide tables, as is customary in these parts (because when the sea retreats half a kilometre, the ports are useless and there are no boat trips). Without asking, they also added the list of restaurants, because the island is a famous destination for gourmets - they farm oysters here and grow the most expensive potatoes in the world. (about them later - yes, I tried them!)

The surrounding beaches are small but well maintained. Sea bathing started in 1850, I learned from beautiful information boards; and in 1859 they built the first six changing cabins. Today there are dozens of them waiting for guests and they are delightful;  white, with tiny steps...

The main street of Noirmoutier-en-l'Île is full of souvenir shops, offering mainly striped sailor' t-shirts, but I was proudly wearing my original from Koláčová (with a lettering which can only be read in a mirror and says “You are more beautiful than Snow White”). Beat that! Maybe I started trend and they will sell copies next summer J

Local market was dedicated mostly to seafood; offering fish, mussels, huge lobsters with their claws bound together with plastic bands and shrimps, which were sold as "very alive" - ​​and indeed, they wriggled and squirmed like I have never seen before; jumped and threshed about like a fish on a line out of water.

Beside the cheese, there were big lumps of butter. And those hams and salami! I was offered a slice of sausage Andouille de Guémené. The well-known delicacy is made of rolled 20-25 pieces of pigs' chitterlings, which are then stuffed into the beef wrap and smoked. When sliced, its concentric circles look like an ornament, composed of meat of different colours. I like to taste new things, but ... this one I didn't like! French, forgive me, to me it smelled like shit and its little greasy consistency also reminded me of that brown product. Eek! I had to bring joy to my taste buds with "sea-gull eggs", speckled chocolate candies.

The history of the town began in 674, when the monk Saint Philibert founded a monastery. At the end of the eighth century, it was plundered by the Vikings; and so to protect it, Charles the Great built a fortress, which was transformed into a castle in the twelfth century. Today there is a museum, one part of which is devoted to film; so you can learn which movies were made here (among others, Little Nicholas).

But the most amazing is the endless view from above: the greenery of meadows and forests, interrupted by basins reflecting the blue sky, a few tufts of yellow oilseed rape, white rectangles of saline, and the distant ocean which retreated away from the shore and left behind boats lying on the sand. Across, there is a pier, a popular route for pedestrians and cyclists.

The centre of the island is lying below sea level. Long ago, this allowed building a system of canals, through which water reached shallow pools where it evaporates and leaves salt crystals behind. Thanks to the "white gold" Noirmoutier got rich; even fishermen from northern Europe used to come here because they needed it to preserve their catches. At the beginning of the twentieth century, ten thousand tons were still produced; nowadays it is only eight hundred, most for tourists. When you see with your own eyes a half-naked sexy young man (well, sometimes a grandpa) raking up salt and forming photogenic piles to let it dry, you immediately know what to buy as a souvenir. Traditional one or with herbs and spices; perfect for fish, meat or soup. It is possible to purchase it right in the stand on site.

To the port of l'Herbaudière I went on foot; it is only six kilometres away. I used one of the well signposted cycling routes. As I was walking, I noticed geese, swans and ducks swimming in small basins. One bird came from the bushes with five offspring, but after spotting me, it got scared to death, quacked, and ran back into the thicket. The herons controlled the situation with a proudly raised head, and when I passed by, they began to look for a fish in the water again. Donkeys and horses grazed on the meadows, and white horse had a problem… how to write it… he had a problem with excessive flatulence. He farted so loudly that it sounded like a shooting from a machine gun! When I took a picture of him, he lifted his tail and thanked me with such a salvo that I almost wet my pants from laughing. When I was fifty metres away from him, I could still hear him ,,to honk”…

When I arrived in town; it started pouring cats and dogs so I hid in a restaurant and had one of the local specialties - dark buckwheat pancakes filled with cheese, ham and mushrooms. The dessert was also a pancake, this time flambé. The waiter served it in a showy way: he put the plate with sweet course in front of me, lit the Grand Marnier orange liqueur in a long-handled pot, and poured a liquid fire on it. It looked impressive…

Meanwhile, it got bloody cold outside. No wonder, l'Herbaudiére lies in the north and is open to the ocean; the winds from Chukotka were blowing and I almost froze in my light jacket.

I tried to get a cab but none was available; so the owner of the souvenir shop asked his mom to watch the store and drove me back. Just like that: "It's normal, people on island help each other," he told me.

It’s a pity I couldn't visit Belle-Île (translated as the Beautiful island), another interesting place. I learned of its existence when I first discovered La Belle Iloise fish canning factory. Its branch is located in every major French city and I am a regular client. I did some shopping also in Noirmoutier. As you can imagine, fishing is the main source of livelihood here, but not everything is eaten right away. The leftovers need to be preserved – in such a way that they would still taste good, otherwise it wouldn't make any sense. And they really taste! I love their delicious soups, salads, mackerel in various brines and spreads from the finest inhabitants of the ocean. (Yum, now I am going to prepare a slice of toast with lobster pate!)  :)

The island can be reached via the bridge - or across the sea. Seriously! Already in the 18th century, people noticed that in the south during low tide water literally parted for a few hours. The first person to cross the sea with a dry (horse) foot to the other shore in 1766 was some Auguste Gauvrit, and then the others followed.

In the 19th century, the route was reinforced and in 1935-39 paved, so the cars began to use it too. The unique Passage du Gois is just over 4 kilometres long and the speed is limited to 50 kilometres per hour. Every year, a foot race is held across it and it was also used by the Tour de France bicycle race.

I decided for a tour on two wheels and at the hotel, they convinced me to take an electric bike. It was great and effortless; I rode through the beautiful countryside, stopped for the oysters in La Guérinière and went around the nature reserve where rare birds nest. Only the last stretch of fifteen kilometres was unprotected. There was such a strong wind blowing that not even Peter Sagan would make it without a motor!

Then I finally saw a very original road sign board "Caution, risk of drowning" with a demonstrative picture of the car under water and a regularly updated digital panel with information about the time when the water would reach its lowest point. It should have been soon.

The cars were already waiting. Passage du Gois is only passable twice a day, for an hour or two; and its use is not very recommended. The tide comes quickly, reaching a height of one to four meters and the road disappears completely under water. But try to explain it to adrenaline lovers! Despite the signs, there are incidents every year, because some fools don't care about the danger or underestimate quickly rising water and get trapped in the middle of the ocean. Then they climb on one of the safety towers along the road and wait for rescue, but they can say goodbye to their car.

Cars finally began to move. The first vehicles carefully came into the seabed and very slowly moved ahead. There was still enough water on the route, and as they entered it, geysers were splashing from beneath their wheels. But after a few minutes they plucked up courage and went one after another, from both sides. In a moment it looked like it was on a highway!

Some of them went off the road, parked fearlessly on the wet sand, and armed with baskets, small shovels and special cleavers, went to collect edible shells. The sea did a striptease, revealed itself and left many creatures on its exposed body. The rocks were covered with shells; the oysters grew directly into the road.

I went almost half way and it was a strange experience. Imagine walking across the ocean while paranoidly watching the water, whether it is not coming back. In the middle of the seabed, there was such a strong wind that it was throwing me away and it was hard to go back. I wouldn't like to stay on a safety tower and wait for help!

Then the sea really began to rise and inundate concrete, but the high tide should have culminated at night; I couldn't wait. It must be exciting when the water closes above the Passage du Gois and the road completely disappears under water ...

As the bike engine began to discharge, I laboriously pedalled back for dear life; the last 15 kilometres was hell. Then I accidentally noticed the lights in Le P´tit Noirmout, the best restaurant in town. It is by reservation only, so I knocked and booked a table.

They opened at 7 pm and all the tables filled in a moment. They only had a three-component menu; I could choose a starter, a main meal and dessert from five menus. First, I got an amuse-bouche (literally "mouth amuser"), a single bite-sized snack to stimulate the taste buds – it was a larger macaroni, filled with St. James shells, explained to me a girl whose task was to stand by the window from which the cook was passing the food. The cod was served as a work of art extravagantly drawn on a black plate. I was pleased that the taste wasn't behind the visual aspect. The pear in red wine was both beautiful and delicious.

The main attraction of La Guérinière is L'île aux Papillons, the Island of Butterflies, actually a greenhouse with tropical plants and butterflies that originate in Kenya, Madagascar, Costa Rica, Guyana, the Philippines... They bring hundreds of chrysalises each week, fix them to the branches of the "maternity hospital" and wait until their time comes. In nature, they would live for one day to several months, but here, with no enemies, they live on average for two weeks. By the way, there are 170,000 species of butterflies in the world, 17,000 of which are day-flying... They feed on nectar from flowers or sweet fruit juice. Some have no digestive system, live for a short time from larval stocks, then die.

It was strange to see such large, colourful butterflies around. The greens were amazing; the blue were beautiful and restless, they didn't sit for a second. They were flying in a weird way, as if they were hanging on a string and someone was controlling them from above; not smoothly, but flapping like pieces of paper in a wind. When two of them were chasing each other, they looked like flowers in the air. The black butterfly sat on a yellow-pink bloom, as if he knew that it will make him stand out best; another one posed photogenically on the water lily in the middle of the pond. What a beauty!

However, the island of Noirmoutier had become famous throughout the planet thanks to the Bonnotte potato variety. It is the most expensive in the world; the price can reach up to 500 euros per kilo! And also the most delicious in the world, that’s why it is nicknamed Rolls Royce among potatoes, Ambassadors of the island, Caviar among potatoes or Yellow diamonds.

It is said that in the early 20th century a farmer bought them from Lower Normandy. The climate of the island suited them - mild winters, mild summers, lots of sun and light rainfall; but especially the soil, fertilized by seaweeds and algae. The result was a finely grained tuber with exceptional taste, officially ranked supreme quality in 1938.

But when mechanization came in the 1960s, it did not help the farmers. The Bonnotte is a delicate plant, potatoes must be handpicked one by one, and in addition, people started to prefer juicier varieties. Production dropped sharply, it was better to grow other types. The future gem disappeared from the market and the island.

In the 1990s, the local cooperative decided to relaunch its cultivation and asked for help from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, which still owned a few roots. They asked them to regenerate copies and the replication was very successful. Potatoes reappeared on the market.

Nevertheless, they did not become internationally famous until 1996, when five kilos were sold in the prestigious Paris auction house Drouot for an incredible 15,000 francs (almost 500 euros per kilo)!

Usually they cost 70 euros (eight on the island market), but only 150 tonnes are harvested per year and they are available just for ten days. No wonder that the exclusive top restaurants fight for them! Most of them are bought, of course, by the French and then by the Dutch.

The Bonnotte is the fifth most expensive delicacy in the world - behind saffron, macadamia nuts, Beluga caviar and white truffle. Why? I quote from several sources:

- in their complex taste, there is a hint of lemon, earth and sea
- they have also a slightly sweet chestnut flavour
- a salty, earthy aftertaste comes from the presence of algae in the soil
- a delicate hint of iodine reminds the influence of the ocean
- taste is enriched by a vague top note of walnut.

Well, and now you know everything.

I was incredibly lucky because during my stay the Bonnotte potato festival took place - potatoes are traditionally planted on February 2 and harvested in May (but this time it was already in April).

On this occasion, the local cooperative organizes an event that attracts many growers, chefs and lovers of good cuisine every year, in addition to the locals. The newspapers compete to publish the most original recipe - a sweet potato cake caught my eye. Not to forget, the Bonnotte also has its own website where you can find various High Cuisine instructions, for example how to prepare a special salad: besides the "yellow gem" you need mackerel, mint, yogurt, fennel, lemon, ginger, 20 small strawberries, a spoonful of mustard, olive oil and cornflowers. Bon appetit!

Those who were interested could take part in the morning harvest. Or to participate in an online game to find ten hidden potatoes and win a weekend stay at Noirmoutier. In the afternoon, there was a group cycling. On the boat in the town, sailors sang, people were sitting around the canal and listening.

But the main event was dinner at 7 pm in the courtyard of the cooperative. Already half an hour before the beginning, there was a long meandering queue. And two short ones - one for potatoes in a special wooden box that looked like a covered basket (high level spuds, high level packing); another one for dinner tickets that cost five euros. Only with them I could stand at the end of a line, surrounded with two trucks, ready to set out with a precious load for which soon the expensive restaurants would fight - the tubers have to be dispatched immediately after picking.

It went fast, they were well organized. One man took out the boxes of sardines from the refrigerated vehicle, sprinkled them with salt, stirred them up by shaking a box and gave them to the women. They quickly put them in grilling metal meshes. Other men were watching the charcoal racks; covered in smoke turned the grids with fish and constantly checked if they were done. Finally, they handed them over to those who were quickly preparing portions - potatoes with sardines or chicken.


I took a precious treasure to one of the wooden tables and first took some pictures from all sides; who knows if I will ever have a chance to taste such a jewel again?

Then I finally put the first piece in my mouth.

I rolled it around my palate like a professional taster, but the desired effect didn't come. To paraphrase Frasier Crane, I expected cathedral bells ringing; or fainting from pleasure; but nothing.

I guess I don't have such a sensitive palate as the French and I am not able to differentiate more nuanced flavours. Or should I believe more to what has been written about them? Or am I weird???

The tubers - round, small, yellowish - had thin skin, they were tasty, tender, maybe a little salter than others, but I swear I didn’t feel the difference between our potatoes, boiled in properly salt water and Bonnotte. None, nada. rien. The inhabitants of the land of the Gallic rooster are definitely masters of advertising (just recently the Italians complained sadly on TV that they don't manage to promote themselves as well as the French do - and they were right).

As a dessert I had a local brioche, something like fancy bread, but one meter long; then I bought some souvenirs. When the band got on stage, it was clear that the village party would last until the early hours of the morning as it should...

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