Much of the time my route takes me through the French regions of Lower Normandy and Brittany. They are across the English Channel from Britain, and figured intensely in D-Day and its aftermath during World War II. Being an Englishman myself, I can smell the roots of current day Britain in the undulating highways and byways of these magnificent lands.
My factory visits take me along the North coast of France, to two villages close to each other with two unrelated factories situated in them. The village of St. Brice en Cogles, only one of a number of Cogles villages (with the inhabitants known as Coglais), is a “Ville Fleurie,” an officially designated “flowered village.” The Armor Proteins plant in St. Brice, part of the Bongrain family empire, is a large milk fractionation site at the edge of the village. Any and every mineral and protein which can somehow be extracted from milk and whey is to be found here. Of course this is real cow country, so it is not surprising to find a milk plant here.
In France most dairy farms are extremely small, and individually owned, only selling their milk to a co-op, but not being owned by one. There was a protest this year when a dairy farm co-op of 200 cows was established.
In the next village of Antrain (inhabitants known as Antrenais), Diana Naturals, now part of Symrise Germany, has a vegetable and fruit extraction plant. All varieties of fruit and vegetables, including purple and black carrots, are processed here, and the most diverse colors and flavors originate in this small village.
Antrain is very close to one of the most well-known French tourist sites, Mont St. Michel.
Situated in the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, where Brittany and Normandy meet and perhaps clash, it is actually one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, with around 3.5 million visitors annually from around the globe.
What once used to be a small granite island rock dominated by an enormous monastery perched perilously on and over the rocky outcrop, is today connected to the mainland by a causeway.
The island itself has restaurants, shops, lodgings and a few inhabitants, but most of the visitors stay in hotels situated on the mainland. In the last few years only tourist shuttle buses have been permitted to drive right up to the Mont, with all other vehicular traffic having to park some distance away. The island has historic ramparts and other ancient buildings, with a phenomenal view of the coast and its salt marshes. Mont St. Michel is a very iconic setting, with models and pictures in all forms being widely sold in France, just like the Tour D’Eiffel.
What is most singular about the Mont St. Michel and indeed this area of coast with its various bays is the tides. The differences between high and low tide, which occur twice a day, are the largest in Continental Europe, and can reach almost 15 meters. This year, the day after the solar eclipse on Friday March 20, the positioning of the celestial bodies created a super tide which cut off the Mont completely from the mainland and turned it back into an island as in ancient times. The event was widely reported in the world press with accompanying pictures.
We now continue our journey along the coast westwards reaching the seaside town of St. Malo.
The Compagnie des Peches St. Malo, on the Quay Duguay, is the only European trawling company which produces frozen surimi base at sea. The trawler Joseph Roty II leaves the port of St. Malo at the start of the fishing season, and does not return until its hold is bulging with frozen surimi base, manufactured from freshly caught blue whiting.
These long marine expeditions used to be accompanied by a rabbi who assured the kosher standards of the surimi for the OU, or as the local press reported, “blessed the lines.” Today, for technical reasons, the kosher surimi base is produced elsewhere. However the Compagnie des Peches has a terrestrial surimi stick plant in the industrial zone of St. Malo, which is OU certified, and produces surimi for many a happy kosher connoisseur.
Leaving St. Malo for the next milk factory in the small town of Crehen, we drive over the
Barrage de la Rance, Dam of the Rance. This is actually a unique institution, being the first tidal power plant in the world, and the largest, by power output, until 2011, when it was overtaken by a South Korean plant. It was opened by President Charles de Gaulle in 1966. This was only after one of France’s most famous and brilliant engineers, Albert Caquot, found a way of building temporary dams to dry up the estuary — enabling the permanent dam to be built. Caquot was in his eighties when he undertook this mighty project!
The idea behind a tidal power plant is to build a dam on an estuary which has very high natural tides. The water at high tide is allowed to flow from the channel into the blocked estuary. It is then kept there until low tide, when it is released into the channel powering turbines in the dam. At the Rance estuary the dam is 750 meters long. The dam negated a long detour between St. Malo and the town of Dinard by creating a road across the bay. There is also a lock and a bascule bridge built into the dam, to allow small boats to pass from the estuary to the channel.
Twenty-four turbines create electricity; and although the costs of construction were extremely high, due to longevity and the low maintenance, the electricity produced is currently cheaper than nuclear power.
The idea for the Rance tidal power plant was first tested and abandoned due to financial constraints in 1925 at Aber W’rach in Finistere next to the town of Brest. The small charming bay La Baie des Anges, Bay of Angels, is situated there.
Brest on the northwestern tip of France (no relation to Brest-Litovsk of World War I fame), with the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its sides, is home to two factories making use of extracted local seaweed or kelp. They transform the algae into alginic acid and in turn into alginates which are used as gelling and thickening agents in the food industry. The factories are Danisco-Dupont, situated in Landerneau La Forest; and Cargill Lannilis, both OU certified, of course.
Having reached the Atlantic, it is only a short hop across the pond to the OU offices on that island rock known as Manhattan. So I will leave you in Brest for now and hope that if you are in France, you will visit this scenic area, which is home to a variety of OU certified plants and products.
RABBI ISRAEL KAY WAS BORN IN GOLDERS GREEN, LONDON. HE SPENT HIS FORMATIVE YEARS IN PARDES HOUSE SCHOOL, AND SUBSEQUENTLY STUDIED IN YESHIVOT IN LONDON AND ISRAEL. HE CURRENTLY LIVES IN ANTWERP, BELGIUM FROM WHERE HE SERVES AS OU KOSHER RFR VISITING OU CERTIFIED PLANTS IN FRANCE.