The island of Ré lies off the Atlantic coast of France, and is linked with the mainland near La Rochelle by a 3 km. long bridge. On the island are ten villages of whitewashed houses, at one of which, Loix en Ré is the centre of the ecomuseum devoted to the manufacture of sea salt. The large scale production of salt on Ré began in the fifteenth century, and uses methods similar to those employed on many other sites on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of southern Europe. Sea water is exposed to evaporation in a succession of lagoons, gradually increasing in salinity, and when crystals of salt begin to appear on the surface between June and September they are harvested by a raking process, described on Ré by the word ‘saunier’ (which means to make salt) and elsewhere in France by the word ‘paludier’ which has a similar meaning.
Salt makers on Ré were able to export their products by sea northern France, and to the fishing ports of the Netherlands, north Germany and Scandinavia, or by sea to Bordeaux and then by inland navigation to central and southern France. At the industry’s peak in the first half of the nineteenth century some 1,500 ha., about 18 per cent of the surface area of Ré, was occupied by salt lagoons, and the annual output reached 30,000 tonnes. Production began to decline about 1850, although transport facilities were improved by the building of a railway to the island which operated between1898 and 1935. In the twentieth century large areas that had been worked for salt were abandoned and some were flooded by the sea.
During the 1990s the industry was revived by a group of young entrepreneurs, La Coopérative des Sauniers de l’Ile de Ré, and the museum was established to explain to visitors the island’s history and ecology, and to provide opportunities for exploration. Guides explain the technology of salt production by means of models, and then take visitors on short tours of some of the lagoons. An introduction is provided to the botany and bird life of salt marshes, to such plants as black mustard, and maritime soda, which is a source of lye used in soap-making, and to such birds as the avocet, the shell duck and the blue throat. The salt workings are best explored by bicycle on a network of tracks that extends for 100 km. around the lagoons. The shop at the museum offers varied a variety of products from the co-operative, including flavoured salt, and picked samphire (salicom).