The salt marshes of Guérande

Fashioned by man over the centuries the salt marshes stretch out before you a breath taking immense mosaic of colours.  These 2 000 hectares of salt marshes bear the quality label of ‘Site remarquable du Goût(a site of culinary interest and excellence) and are supplied with seawater via the inlets of ‘Les traicts du Croisic and Mesquer’. 
Visits of these conservation areas of environmental heritage can be arranged via 3 structures ‘Terre de Sel’, ‘la Maison des Paludiers’’ in Guérande and ‘le Musée des Marais Salants’ in Batz-sur-Mer. There are also other types of tours on offer via the independent salt workers – ‘les paludiers’  and other groups.

Salt marshes

The salt marshes of Guérande seen from the sky
The multicoloured patchwork of the salt marshes provides us with a landscape which is both unique and bewitching…pale grey in the morning, brilliant white at midday, violet under the sunset.  Ever changing with the seasons…never ceasing to amaze…This vast area covers some 2 000 hectares of marshland some cultivated some not, divided into two zones :
  • The salt marshes of Guérande, which border the sea inlet of ‘Le Traict du Croisic’, covering some 1 650 hectares, spread out over an area in/and around to Batz-sur-Mer, Guérande and La Turballe.
  • The salt marshes of Le Mès, which lie beyond the hillside near Guérande, cover an area of some 350 hectares in/and around Mesquer-Quimiac, Saint-Molf and Assérac. This zone is supplied with seawater via the inlet of Le Traict de Mesquer.

The importance of these wetlands is further emphasized by their protection under various conservation orders as well the possession of many international awards for their ecological value (Natura 2000, RAMSAR, etc…). In the company of a naturalist guide or alone, equipped only with your binoculars you can observe the various shorebirds including the elegant pied avocet, black-winged stilt, common redshank, grey heron, little egret and many more…(i.e. the small waders).

Want to find out more about the famous local sea salt?...then read on… !

The salt marshes of Guérande
The salina is the name given to the place ‘where it all happens’.  The ‘Paludier’s’ workplace.  With skill and expertise the salt-worker carefully manages the water level in the various basins.  In order to harvest the famous sea salt of Guérande.  The technique still used today dates back to before the IXth century. At least five salinas dating back to the Carolingian period are still in use today in the salt marshes of Guérande.  The conservation of this authentic trade of ‘Le Paludier’ using traditional methods is what has enabled the salt marshes of Guérande to continue prosper until today.

At each high tide the ‘paludier’ opens a sluice gate to fill the vasière’, the first basin of the evaporation circuit, which acts as a reservoir in between the tides. As its name suggests it also acts a decantation pool, where the particles in suspension, mixed up in the sea water, can settle.  With the help of the constant and gentle slope the sea water passes effortlessly into the evaporation basins ; ‘le cobier’, ‘les fards’ ‘les adernes’ which act as daily holding ponds which supply the last basins where the salt harvest takes place : les œillets’.

The sea water of the Atlantic Ocean stands at a salt concentration of some 25 g/l on arrival in ‘le traict’.  It then works its way along the network of channels, ‘les étiers’, as far as the very bottom of furthest pool several kilometres away from the ocean.  Once at ‘la vasière’ it begins its journey through successive basins.  Each section of its route sees the water heat-up and evaporate under the action of the sun and the wind.  When it eventually arrives in the ‘œillet’ the water will have reached the right concentration for the salt to crystalize (280 g/l).

Welcome to the kingdom of ‘Les Paludiers’!

In the heart of the salt workers’ villages of Batz-sur-Mer, Guérande, Mesquer or Saint-Molf, the history of the salt trade has also had its hand in fashioning the houses.  The landscape of the salt marshes of Guérande is liberally dotted with ‘salorges’, the large granite warehouses used for stocking the salt.

The paludiers’ traditional houses with their coloured woodwork and slate roofs are indeed a characteristic feature of the landscape.  Be sure to stop-off and visit some of the villages to see for yourselves:
  • Kervalet, Roffiat, Trégaté near Batz-sur-Mer
  • Clis, Quéniquen, Saillé, Careil near Guérande
  • Trescalan near La Turballe
  • Boulais, Pendhué near Saint-Molf
  • Kervarin, Kercabellec, Rostu, Penlô near Mesquer
  • Kergéraud, Trélogo, Berzibérin and Pont d'Armes near Assérac

Just around the corner from the salt marshes the former salt warehouses, with their unique shape form an imposing feature of the local landscape.  These salt storehouses known as ‘les salorges’, became more common in the second half of the XIXth century springing up near to the railway lines and farms.  These imposing granite buildings with their large buttresses and slate or tiled roofs are still very much present today.  A prime example being the massive monumental salorge in Batz sur Mer.  The ‘Musée des Marais Salants’ is in fact in part located in the former salt warehouse belonging to the Bertrand family.

The salt trade

The history of salt production in the Guérande Peninsula goes back a long way. Thanks to written evidence we can trace the techniques still used today in the salt marshes back to before the IXth century. The construction of the salinas spanned out over several centuries.

Around the year 1500, the salt marshes reached 80% of the area they occupy today.   Between the years 1560 and 1660, thanks to the development of the shipping trade, 2 500 ‘œillets’ (sections of the salina, where salt crystallization takes place) were constructed. The last salinas in the Guérande basin were established around 1 800 and several decades later in Mès basin. As early as the mid-19th century a progressive trend of abandonment set in.

This abandonment was at its height between the years of 1840 and 1960 in the face of serious competition on part of the salt mined in various other countries and from the sea salt from the Mediterranean region. Other deciding factors included a marked decrease in consumption of table salt as a means of preserving foodstuffs and an increasingly efficient road transport system. During certain times incessant wars also made the transport of salt by sea perilous.

Today the production of salt takes place in the salt marshes of Guérande, Le Mès and further south – Noirmoutier and l'Ile de Ré. There are also a few isolated salinas in Beauvoir and on l'Ile d'Olonne, which remain dedicated to salt production. It is to be noted that across all of these sites the total area farmed has been in decline since the last century.
Today the level of salt production of the west is below that of the Mediterranean salinas. It is however of paramount importance to emphasize that the producers’ of the Atlantic salinas primary aim is the production and supply of a high quality culinary salt.

Salt in all its forms… 

Salt in all its forms : Coarse grey salt, fleur de sel, fine table salt
Coarse grey salt, fine table salt or plain, fleur de selflavoured salts...Refined and delicate, you can use your salt whichever way takes your fancy! But one thing never changes the product is always guaranteed of a high quality, gathered by hand. Tantalize your taste buds! Try the caramels made with salted butter or the salicornia.

Savoury or sweet ? Caramels made with salted butter from Guérande, tender and chewy, these are one the favourites from the Guérande peninsula to be consumed in moderation by both the young and ‘not so young’!  Our most famous chocolatiers also invented the chocolate with a hint of ‘fleur de sel’. Savour this ganache with its heart of delicately salty caramel or allow yourself to be tempted by a macaroon…all unique treats just waiting to be enjoyed!

Salicornia also known locally as ‘la corne salée’ is a little plant which grows in the salt marshes. It can be adapted for use in many recipes in similar ways to French beans ie, steamed or even sautéd. If you prefer, it can be eaten as a condiment pickled like gerkins.

The full range of ‘salt products’

Fine white crystals ‘La fleur de sel’

Is most sought after for its delicate aroma of violets. These naturally occurring fine white chrystals of salt were first discovered by the general public in 1994 and are today considered to be ‘the caviar of salt products’.
The demand for this product is such today that other producers both French and from other countries have attempted, without success, to imitate it by usurping its name.  It is made all the more precious by its rarity and the precise conditions necessary for its harvest:  gathered from the very surface of the water in the ‘œillet’ its formation boosted by an easterly wind.  Particularly prized amongst gourmets for its unique flavour ‘la fleur de sel de Guérande’ is ideal  to be used lightly sprinkled after cooking on your food to enhance the flavours of both meat and grilled fish, with foie gras or a little pinch added ‘croque-au-sel’ as we say in France on raw vegetables and salads.

Coarse grey salt ‘Le gros sel’

Easily identified by its grey crystals (a colour given to ‘le gros sel’ by the particles of clay from the bottom of the evaporation basins or ‘œillets’), this traditional sea salt is very rich in magnesium, a source of calcium and iron and contains many trace elements. Classified since 2007 as a salt for culinary purposes the coarse grey salt from Guérande brings added flavour to both traditional and family cuisine.  It can be used to make salt crusts for baking in the oven, stock, to add to grilled fish and meats or to quite simply give added flavour to the water used for cooking pasta, vegetables...

Fine or plain ground sea salt

Unlike industrially produced salt, the fine sea salt from Guérande is a natural and unrefined product. Coarse grey salt is merely dried and ground to preserve the authentic and original nature of this product!  It is perfectly adapted to both culinary and table use.   

Flavoured salt

Today the fine salt, pride of Guérande’s salt marshes, is also available in three distinctive but delicate flavours :
  • ‘with herbs’. This salt brings out all the aromas and flavours of the aromatic herbs and therefore goes so well with all types of grilled meats, fish and vegetables.
  • ‘with seaweed’  A subtle blend of three types of seaweed which lend their flavours to fish, seafood, soups, sauces or fish stock.
  • ‘with vegetables’  the distinctive flavour of celery which goes oh so perfectly with tomato based recipes makes of this flavoured salt a perfect ingredient to add to your pasta, rice, soups and sauces.

A site of culinary importance and interest gets national quality label !

In 1996 this region with so much variety in its natural heritage was awarded the much deserved recognition of a national quality label.  Its quality product, its ecosystem management and the work of professionals were all rewarded.
 Distinguished by a committee whose members came from the ministries of agriculture, culture, ecology and tourism, the criteria to be fulfilled by a qualifying site, ‘le Site Remarquable du Goût’, are as follows :
Guérande, a site of culinary importance and interest
  • The existence of an emblematic food product from the local area.  This product must be well known and be of historical interest.
  • Delicate, tasty and aromatic the salt from Guérande is of an extremely high quality.  It is 100% natural, that is to say it is not rinsed, not refined and a totally additive free.  ‘La Fleur de Sel’ or ‘le Gros sel’ will always lend a delicious flavour to all your dishes.
  • The existence of an exceptional heritage on both an environmental and architectural front.  Listed since 1996, the salt marshes of the peninsula, at the foot of the medival town of Guérande, provide a rich opportunity to observe unique examples of flora and fauna.
  • The provision of information for the general public enabling them to become aware of the links between a food product, the local cultural heritage, the site and the people who live and work there.
  • A network of professionals from the hotel/catering trade and organisations working for the protection of the environment are on hand to help you discover and enjoy the many aspects of the Peninsula of Guérande – ‘Le Pays Blanc’ – the ‘white country’ as it is known around here.  There are even outings available in the salt marshes in the company of ‘les paludiers’ or staff from the LPO (= group concerned with the protection of birds).
  • The organisation of the people involved around the four aspects of the concept (agriculture, culture, environment and tourism).  118 sites currently hold this quality label including those who produce; the wine of Saint Emilion, the oysters from Arcachon, the black truffle from Quercy, the sausages from Morteau…
  • The salt workers’ villages in the heart of the salt marshes of Guérande
  • Salt worker working in the salt marshes of Guérande
  • The saltworks of Guérande
  • Salorge of Rostu in Mesquer
  • Harvest of the salt in the salt marshes of Guérande
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  • The salt marshes of Guérande - Bretagne plein Sud