Our first visit to Normandy in 2007 included a day to Mont Saint Michel. Back then visitors drove up to the gate and parked on the old salt flats alongside the road.
Later that day, high on a stone terrace, we recovered from over 1000 steps up and the inevitable jostling of tourists. ‘There isn’t much in it’ said an unimpressed tourist who seemed to have overlooked the mysterious twisting passageways, rooms full of grand arches and the peaceful cloister.
All around us were miles of beautiful blue sea and sky. It was, and is, breath-taking. Mont Saint Michel is one of the reasons we fell in love with Normandy. And like many things that people fall in love with, the Mont has inspired jealousy, bitterness and even crime. But first a little background to our vintage postcard.
The history of La Mère Poulard
After 50 years as a prison, in 1872 Mont Saint-Michel was placed under the guardianship of the office for historical monuments.
Édouard Corroyer, the historic monuments’ chief architect, was entrusted with restoring the Abbey. It would be a huge undertaking. The buildings were all very badly damaged; rooms partitioned, frescos destroyed and there had been little or no maintenance for years.
Édouard would make many trips from Paris to the Mont, bringing his wife, daughter and their maid Annette Boutiaut. Annette would later recall how dark and forbidding the island first appeared. As they arrived one grey evening by horse drawn cart the tide was rising fast and a young man, Victor Poulard, carried her to dry land.
Young love on an old island
While Édouard studied the old Abbey and drew up plans for restoration, pretty 21 year old Annette was being studied by Victor. Clear eyed and fair haired, Victor was the son of the Mont’s baker. He moved fast. A few remarkable sunsets later, on 4 January 1873 Victor and Annette were married.
M. and Mme Corroyer were a kindly couple and helped set Victor and Annette up a business running one of the three hostels on the Mont; ‘la Tête d’Or’ (on the site of La Poste) along the Grande Rue. Victor and Annette rented the property from an uncle.
As Édouard shared news back in Paris about the remarkable Abbey he was restoring, a new sort of visitor started arriving at the Mont. Previously only of interest to shrimp fishermen and convict’s families, now scholars, archaeologists and pilgrims braved the arduous journey.
The problem of lunch
Feeding island visitors had always been a problem. Never sure who would arrive between tides that lowered at all hours, planning food ahead was nearly impossible. Remembering her own arrival on the Mont tired and hungry, Annette came up with the ideal gourmet solution for their irregular visitors. Omelettes could be prepared quickly, and using rich Normandy butter would be rich and filling.
The Poulard hostel became very popular.
Unfortunately the Poulard uncle eyed their growing enterprise enviously and unceremoniously kicked them out wanting that tourist income for himself. Fortunately Annette had saved a considerable amount of their profits and the couple cheerfully bought a property a few yards closer to the entrance.
Savvy and successful
Victor and Annette opened their Auberge in 1888 and, as the first hostelry visitor saw on their arrival, was instantly popular. Annette cooked omelettes on an open fire in full view (as they still are) of the little road, who could resist? Their future secure, Victor and Annette lived quite happily, ever after.
Victor was for many years mayor of Mont Saint-Michel and their golden wedding anniversary party in 1923 went down in history as the celebration of the century. When Victor died in 1923 and Annette in 1931 they were greatly mourned. The couple’s tomb can be found in the parish churchyard of eglise St-Pierre, halfway up the Mont.
La Mere Poulard remained a gourmand institution and has welcomed many famous visitors including; King Edward VII, Maurice Chevalier, Leon Trotsky, Christian Dior, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa, lots of French presidents, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and even Marilyn Monroe.
The shuttle scandal
Less than one hundred years later the name La Mère Poulard was rocked by scandal.
Mont-Saint-Michel has about 40 people living on it at any time; a total of 100 people have the right to vote on Mont business, mostly living elsewhere. There are 9 people on the council, generally 2 farmers and 7 with business interests on the Mont. This is only mildly interesting, but it is key to the shuttle scandal…
Mont Saint-Michel has continued to provide a tidy income with 2.5million visitors traipsing up the Grande Rue every year. Properties are owned by very few families; around 30 in and around the Mont (including La Mère Poulard restaurant, café shops and museum) owned by M. Éric Vannier and quite a few others including the Auberge Saint Pierre, by M. Patrick Gaulois.
The two mayors
M. Éric Vannier was mayor from 1983 to 2001 and from 2008 to 2014. M. Gaulois from 2001 to 2008. Between them the two mayors either own or have an interest in, 80% of all Mont Saint-Michel businesses.
Éric Vannier was fortunate to inherit in 1974 a museum on Mont Saint-Michel from his grandparents. From this modest start in his business life, Éric Vannier created the Mère Poulard group. He bought the famous Auberge de Mère Poulard in 1986 and created the Mère Poulard biscuit factory (in Brittany!!) in 1998. Packed into pretty vintage style tins, Mère Poulard biscuits are sold in 70 countries worldwide. La Mère Poulard franchise restaurants have opened across Asia.
Of course both of these illustrious gentlemen have worked hard to keep Mont Saint-Michel well cared for and popular with the public.
An island forever
At the start of the 21st century there was widespread support to clear the silted up bay and restore the Mont to a tidal island. It took many years and €185million to flush away 106 million cubic feet of silt and sand. Now a strong bridge curves towards Mont Saint-Michel and the island is no longer in danger of becoming part of the mainland.
A new car park was built on the mainland and from April 2012 visitors could either walk across the bridge, take a horse drawn cart or zoom over on one of the many free shuttle busses (the car park is not free).
An unpopular decision
For a while the shuttle did not stop anywhere near the car park. It only stopped 1km towards the island.
M. Gaulois was not impressed by this decision. Neither were tourists who had to walk so far to get the bus for a further 1.5km journey to the island. M. Gaulois complained. Loudly. His formal complaint was investigated and some surprising facts came to light.
Which is why in 2013 M. Vannier found himself facing the public prosecutor at Coutances criminal court.
M. Vannier, then mayor of Mont Saint-Michel and leader of the local council, was accused of using his elected position to force a decision that resulted in tourists having to leave their vehicles and walk 15 minutes, via two of his establishments (the Relais Saint Michel and the Hotel de la Digue) to reach the new shuttle bus service to the Mont.
For the prosecution
“This decision had a direct effect on his business interests and as such Mr Vannier shouldn’t have participated in reaching this decision,” said state prosecutor Renaud Gaudel.
The prosecution claimed the mayor unfairly pressured a decision-making body he was a member of (the Mont council) and even wrote a letter to his friend Nicolas Sarkozy – president of France at the time – seeking support.
“The departure point is right in the middle of two businesses run by Mr. Vannier” local prosecutor Renaud Gaudeul told the court, adding rather unnecessarily that the position of the shuttle station “had a direct impact on his businesses“.
M. Gaudeul called on the judge to impose a six-month prison sentence and a 30,000 euro (£26,000) fine on the mayor for “illegal taking of interest“.
In response M. Vannier claimed he was “only seeking to reduce ticket prices and transport costs”.
M. Gaulois told the court “I am not acting out of jealousy … I don’t want the Mont to become an amusement park … with Poulard (Mr Vallini’s flagship brand) everywhere.”
Mr Vannier’s lawyer argued that he had only acted “in the name of love for the Mont” pointing out this was “the sixth proceedings brought by Patrick Gaulois against Éric Vannier and, I hope, his sixth failure!”
The court found against Éric Vannier, Mayor of Mont Saint-Michel. The judge ordered a fine of €30,000, two thirds suspended.
“All the accusations against my client, who has fought for 30 years in the interest of the public and the rejuvenation of the Mont, are false!” M. Vannier’s lawyer Richard Valeanu insisted.
The case went to appeal. However in 2015 the Caen Court of Appeal condemned the now former mayor of Mont-Saint-Michel, Éric Vannier and demanded a €50,000 fine. At the hearing on 24 November, Advocate General Marc Vaury said M. Vennier “intervened heavily until he got bogged down, became omnipresent” while he was mayor, to ensure his businesses would capture “the entire tourist flow”.
The shuttle busses to Mont Saint-Michel now leave from just by the car park, arriving close to the gates of the Mont. M. Vannier resides in Paris. The sea flows freely around the bay and millions of people come to see it.
The famous Mère Poulard omelette recipe is of course a secret. All the chefs will say is to use rich Normandy butter and do not overcook them. But here are two recipes found that claim to be authentic. If you try them, let us know how you get on!
Mère Poulard omelette recipe 1
- 5 eggs
- 85g grated Gruyère
- 2 teaspoons of cornstarch
- juice of half a lemon
- 20g of melted butter
- Salt and pepper.
Separate the whites from the egg yolks. Add the grated Gruyere and melted butter, salt and pepper. Mix the yolks and the cornstarch. Set the whites with two teaspoons of water and lemon juice. Gently stir the whites into the yolks. Pour into a greased oven-proof pan and allow to cook on heat (fire preferably of course!) then finish in the oven (preheated to 200° C) for 7 to 8 minutes to raise to a soufflé. Serve with a salad.
Mère Poulard omelette recipe 2
- 10 extra-fresh farm eggs
- 100 g salted butter
- a little ground white pepper
- a pinch of salt.
Separate the eggs and beat the whites gently. Slowly incorporate the yolks until the eggs are smooth and frothy. In a large non-stick pan put 60g butter. As soon as it is just melted pour in the beaten eggs and cook, bringing the edges towards the centre. As soon as the omelette is sufficiently cooked, quickly add the remaining 40 g of butter, diced, and the pepper mill blow. Slide half on one dish and cover with the other half.
Ever wondered whose idea it was to build a church on Mont Saint-Michel? Find out in our post ‘A headache at Mont Saint-Michel‘.