Noirmoutier: Background information when reading A Secret Kept

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A Secret Kept

by Tatiana de Rosnay

A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2010, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2011, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

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Beyond the Book:
Noirmoutier

Print Review

A Secret Kept is set primarily in Paris and Noirmoutier (pronounced "nwar mooteeay"), an island off the Atlantic coast of France in the Loire region. A popular tourist destination for both beach-lovers and history buffs, Ile de Noirmoutier (literally 'island of black monastery') has several claims to fame:

It is home to La Bonnotte, the world's most expensive potato. The carefully controlled crop is harvested by hand in the first week of May and is sold to restaurants and foodies across Europe. If you look up La Bonnotte online you'll find a multitude of websites ready to tell you that they sell for €500 or more a kilo. These reports should be taken with a strong pinch of salt. The reality is that occasional bags have sold for as much as €3000 at charity auctions, but the island's tourism board tells us that the crop is sold for around €3-€4 per kilo (about US$2-$3 per lb) - which is still a lot to pay for a bag of spuds especially by the time they've been marked up in stores - but apparently they are very tasty.

islandTalking of salt, the island has been a source of fleur de sel (hand-harvested salt, literally "flower of salt") for at least 1500 years, since Benedictine monks turned the wetlands into salt marshes in the 5th century. Salt is likely the reason that the Vikings attacked the island's monastery in 799 - the first recorded Viking raid on continental Europe. Repeated raids, usually timed to coincide with the salt harvesting season, led to the building of the fortified Château de Noirmoutier in the 9th century. passage de goisAccording to Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, the invaders may have contributed to the salt production by bringing with them improved salt-making techniques. At first glance it might seem a little odd that raiders would be bringing with them new technology, but keep in mind that the people we know as the Vikings were essentially Scandinavian farmers who would, from time to time, go viking (i.e. raiding) and, being farmers at heart, often ended up settling on the land that they had formerly raided.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the island is the Passage de Gois (pronounced "pasarge de gwah"), a 4.15 kilometer causeway that is flooded at high tide. If you follow the Tour de France, you may remember it as the site of a big crash involving dozens of riders in the 1999 race. There is also an annual footrace across the Gois every summer that begins when the water hits the causeway (that's some incentive to run fast!) and those who are too slow end up swimming to the finish line. This buried road is used as a metaphor for secrets in A Secret Kept.

Images: The keep of the Château de Noirmoutier (a keep is the strongest part of a castle, usually the last to fall in an attack); and the Passage de Gois.

Article by Beverly Melven

This article was originally published in September 2010, and has been updated for the September 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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