Violets and Purples

In June 2016 Nick and I were invited to stay with some friends on their boat in the south of France.  They keep their boat in the marina at Frejus, just by St Raphael which is in the heart of the French Riviera.  The aim during the three weeks we were with them was to make a crossing to Corsica and maybe Elba.  Unfortunately first a blast from the Mistral and then a series of mechanical upsets delayed our departure to the point that the envisaged cruise would not be possible within the window of opportunity available to us.  So we contented ourselves with coastal sailing and during those three weeks we gained a good flavour of the resorts strung out along the coast.  Names such as St Tropez, Cannes, Nice, Villefranche-sur-mer, Cap Ferrat became reality, as we plied our passage to the west and east of our resident port.  These coastal settlements looked pretty densely populated to me and I was quite content to view from afar.

One morning our host announced that there would be a market strung out along the promenade at Frejus.  With every kind of stall that can be imagined we viewed the goods and shopped for supplies.  Before we set off together however, Francois slipped out early to visit one particular stall which sells fish and seafood.  He was in search of ‘Violets’.  This was evidently a vernacular name for a particular ‘fruit de mer’ and when he described them to me I could not even imagine to which phylum they belonged.  When he returned with his booty Francois showed us a plastic bag containing what I took to be small irregular rocks with assorted encrustations and frondose attachments.  Well, ‘fin bref’ as the French say the dozen individuals turned out to be sea squirts, or ascidians.  When I eventually ran the species down it turns out that the so-called ‘violets’ (which are not violet at all), or sea figs as they are sometimes called, were Microcosmos sabatieri.  They are eaten in various parts of the world including China, Japan, Korea and in countries bordering the north coasts of the Mediterranean.  Quick reference to Wikipedia tells you that they are eaten raw, often with a sharp condiment such as lemon juice or shallot vinegar and have a slight taste of iodine.  You simply cut through the stout fleshy tunic to expose the sulphur yellow soft parts, loosen them from their point of attachment and chuck them back as you would slurp an oyster.  Their texture and flavour are distinctly marine, and they are not dissimilar to oysters but the taste is stronger.

Ah, I hear some say.  But they aren’t molluscs are they?  No, but the ‘Purples’ Francois bought on the same foray most certainly were.  The second plastic bag was opened to reveal some twenty Murex shells.  Smaller than Buccinum whelks and larger than Ocenebra or Nucella shells the species that were being sold locally, and which I was staring at, was Hexaplex trunculusNow I have written a bit about certain muricid species, i.e. those that harbour the hypobranchial gland whose secretions are capable of producing purple dye, in the context of Tyrian purple production.  There are sources that document the use of Nucella lapillus and Stramonita haemastoma as a foodstuff but I had not come across references to Hexaplex as a comestible.  To cook them a litre of water was drawn and 30g of salt was added to replicate, more or less, seawater.  A good glug of oil and some hefty shakes of ground pepper were added.  The whelks were rinsed and then boiled for 10 minutes after which one was tested for easy removal of the body.  Over-cooking toughens the flesh.  All marine snails are tricky to extract from the shells.  Bits get left behind.  But I managed to find enough meat to dip into freshly-made mayonnaise.  I’m used to eating whelks and the Murex were similar but with a more pronounced flavour.  At the end of the meal I noticed that the aperture exteriors of some of the shells had picked up some purple staining.  I must confess that I rushed to a mirror to see if my tongue had stained blue.  My tongue was unscathed.



Outdoor Lights

Five days after returning from France there is a treat in store.  Fortuitously the family finds itself in the same country with a weekend to spare.  Not always easy to engineer with the diversity of activities in which we, and particularly the youngest generation, are becoming involved.  Climbing, singing, music gigs…… we pack our lives.

Happily Barns and Lukie live in a cottage on a farming estate in Oxfordshire, an easy destination at which all of us can converge.  The cottage is small and we are fifteen souls.  Because Barns is involved in the Scouting movement, our weekend will be focused on the great outdoors.  When we arrive a fire is already alight, fuelled by logs from the adjacent woodland, wherein rootle the pigs from which source comes the giant joint of meet pot-roasting in an extra large saucepan.  The fireplace is neatly constructed from bricks, a few courses forming a horse-shoe into whose opening logs are steadily fed as the fire burns.

Before we can eat this meat there is lunch; a cauldron of sweet corn soup is followed by cheese and pate with a fruit platter to finish.  Our afternoon passes very amiably, the children range around………… rehearsing and filming dramatic antics,  scampering around the environs of the cottage, dancing.  The adults catch up with each other and amongst diverse topics the conversation reverts time and again to the unending pantomime of events that the Brexit vote engendered.  At one point Lola comes up to me and says that as well as young people having the vote, she hopes I won’t be offended if she suggests that old people should be stripped of theirs; presumably at the point at which their selfish desires override the best interests of the population at large!

When we eat the evening meal it is a triumph of deliciousness.  The slow-cooked pork is tasty and succulent, the large pan of dauphinoise potatoes cooked on the open fire yummy, and for good measure Lukie has made a spinach and mushroom niceness cooked in filo pastry.  With crunchy bar ice-cream and berries for afters.  We had hoped to have an outdoor viewing of The Martian before bed but suddenly it is all very late.  A quorum of us have a hasty game of Perudo before people melt away to their beds under canvas, leaving Nick and I the luxury of a real bed and some of the others squeezed into bunk beds in the cottage.

Sunday brings a lovely surprise when, just as we are about to eat our brunch cooked on the open fire, whose embers were successfully rekindled by Joel, Barney’s schoolfriend Andy Doran arrives with Paul Cutler.  Andy is over from Berkeley for the purposes of a conference but has used the opportunity to tarry a while in Europe.  Andy holds a special place in Nick’s and my affections: he masterminded and helped to execute the Hanging Gardens of Peperharow Road back in the 90s. For which we will be ever grateful.  After our hearty brunch comes riverside time, kayaks are retrieved from the barn and transported to the bank of the Thames by Shillingford Bridge.  There the young paddle up and down a stretch of water, and Nick has his first shot at paddling his own canoe for real.  Back at the cottage there is another round of feasting before we come to a parting of the ways……… until the next time.

As a nice little goody bag, Lukie hands me a plastic carrier full of their homegrown spinach and coriander.  I make a delicious pesto with the latter the following day: to the cups of coriander I add garlic, walnuts, olive oil and a little salt.  Over successive days we eat it with steamed carrots, tomato and courgette tart, fish pie.  It is a delicious alternative to the more conventional basil pesto and the little jars of it will be great to pull out of the freezer from time to time.  I must try and grow my own coriander next year.


Our Winterborne Wildness

After a very short interval in St Vaast after our French Riviera sojourn, I hotfooted it back to Winterborne K.  My sister is going to be staying with me for a few weeks whilst her knee heals after surgery for a replacement.  And my dear mother is now installed in her new residential home and after a month’s absence I am keen to find out how she is and whether she is settling in.  When I came to book my return journey to Dorset I nearly failed to get a ferry crossing on my chosen travel date because our neck of the woods in Normandy has been the focus for the Tour de France and many Brits have chosen to make long weekend of it.  Fortunately I can cross to Portsmouth and Liz picks me up on Monday evening.

Liz has already warned me that our lawn is overdue for a mowing.  Arriving at the house I glance out of the kitchen glass doors and such a surprise greets the eye.  In our four week absence a pretty white clover and yarrow meadow has established itself.  Small stands of these herbs and others, of the low-growing lawn species Black Medick, Medicago lupulina,  and Self Heal, Prunella vulgaris, form a patchwork with some small areas of close carpet grass.  Overall I could not have planned a better planting arrangement.  Nature has given my garden a makeover.

It is going to be Open Gardens weekend in our village in a couple of days.  The front gravels are looking very untidy and uncared for with scattered weeds across the open area and a greening around the edges.  I have to get down on my hands and knees and attack the worst offenders.  After some hours and satisfied that the gravels look reasonably presentable, I go to Homebase and buy some plants to dress the porch to my study and freshen up the large glazed pots.  Because we will be away at the weekend I ask Chris to stick the chicken wire mouse fork into a pot on Sunday and I then feel that our frontage will present a respectable face to visiting passers-by.

Gardening Notes

With a view to temporary abandonment of my gardens I have been scurrying around dealing with the largest and most persistent weeds, and have been taking remedial and cosmetic steps to keep things looking pretty.   There has been enough rain in the most recent weeks to ensure lushness and healthy green growth.  Now, more and more splashes of colour are appearing around the borders.

I’ve had pickings of sorrel, globe artichokes and rhubarb.  Last year’s runner bean seeds which Nick happened upon in the workshop have germinated.  There are loads of figs on the tree – surely enough for us and the greedy blackbird who sets up residence.  There is a reasonable crop of gooseberries.  Nick and I cannot agree whether to pick them whilst unripe to freeze for pies and the like.  I fear the wood pigeons will steal a march on us.

All in all things must take their chance.  I’ve taken a few photos so we can see how things are looking in three weeks’ time….


Barfleur Crossings and Potty Endeavours

Since March Nick and I have been living a restless life.  Never in one country for more than a fortnight at a time, with intervals sometime less than that, our weeks have been peopled with friends and family in both our countries of residence.  We like visitors, and I at least, enjoy a shifting stage on which to live my life.  Nick is less convinced so some of my exploits have been solo efforts.  Like Orkney, and my time in Godalming when I cared for Ted whilst Demi was on holiday.

With the arrival of Jenny and Lesley in St Vaast we then find ourselves at the end of our hosting activities for the time being.  When we shift our location next time we will be going to join some dear friends on their boat at Frejus with a 3-week sailing spell in view.

In recent weeks I have been crossing the Channel on the Barfleur for a mid-week interlude, in order to visit my mother, play some bridge and when I can, tidy up the garden, notably the pots.  potsIMG_6011 (2)Although the winter in Dorset was not generally severe, there were a couple of very cold snaps when the temperatures descended into the minuses and I lost quite a lot of tender plants which I had raised in St Vaast.  All the tulips and daffodils I grew in pots are spent too so they need to be placed in a sheltered place and fed.   With summer in view I need to be pragmatic.  Things in pots do well during autumn, winter (if I choose the plants wisely) and spring.  Because there is enough rain.  Trying to have summer bloomers in pots only ends in tears when the weather is dry and I am not there to water.  So my new strategy is to leave these pots fallow and set ‘arrangements’ on them.  No shortage of shells, pebbles, boulders and other objets d’art chez moi!  And if a few pretty weeds sprout around my arrangements well that’s ok.  Whilst I am at it I haul out jugs which I keep in various cupboards and create a random.JugRandomIMG_5961 (2)

On one of my visits with Mum I take some of our holiday scrapbooks.  When my children were young in the late 70s and early 80s we had a series of hols in Cornwall and my parents joined us.  BessysCoveThese were happy times of the classic seaside holiday and we made scrapbooks using pictures, bits of writing, postcards and assorted tickets, pressed flowers and the like.  I thought these would be fun for the children to look back on in adulthood and their own children love looking at them too.  That this is an activity which gives so much pleasure to my mother is a real bonus.  When we first started going to Cornwall our first couple of visits were based at Port Isaac but then we discovered Prussia Cove and we never looked back.

Two Feminists and A Man and his Woodpile

We’ve felt a bit like Mecca these past weeks with a succession of ‘pilgrims’ fetching up at our establishment.  Latest in the line of travellers are Jenny and Lesley who have come to France for a week with a stop-over at 104 at the beginning and end of their sojourn.  I am lately back from England when they arrive at our house having spent 3 nights in Carnac near the Quiberon Peninsula.  They are full of the rocks, the countryside, wild plants they don’t know the names of, the Madame who ran the chambres d’hote at which they stayed.

My role and pleasure is to welcome them, feed them and as it turns out, listen……… and listen again and then a bit more.  Jenny is Nick’s sister and they are long-standing sparring partners when it comes to social issues, politics and above all, feminism.   remorqueIMG_5962 (2) Nevertheless Lesley and I get a generous look-in when it comes to conversing.  Whilst we have our visitors Nick is on the final stages of transporting the fully logged beech tree that he and Francois cut down earlier in the spring.  All our storage allocation at the rear of the house is now full so a neat stack is  built along the wall on the front drive.  blogIMG_6009 (2)It is a pretty neat and regular structure but I learn that Nick has some fancier ideas for a wood-pile which he has gleaned from the award-winning book, Norwegian Wood.  This is the definitive handbook on the art of chopping, stacking and drying wood in the Scandinavian way.  He’d better get on with his project because where the wood is stacked at the moment the agapanthus plants, which have seeded themselves along the wall of our property are shielded from the sun and unless they receive some good light and sunshine I fear they may not flower this summer and they will be much missed.

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Tuttles and Tittle Tattle

A year ago we welcomed our friends Claire and Ty to Winterborne Kingston.  We are on the threshold of another week of shared company in Dorset.  As things have worked out the four of us are able to drive over together and we will be returning in the same car in a week’s time to join the Tailles for their annual party in St Vaast.

During their stay we visited Lyme Regis, Thomas Hardy’s home ‘Max Gate’ followed by some shopping in Dorchester, Wyevale Garden Centre and the Sculptures on the Lake at Pallington.  Midweek they were picked up from TOW by Claire’s cousin who lives close by.  Whilst they were away overnight I went to visit my mother in Poole and hosted bridge in the evening.

As occurred last year, the weather was very changeable and we did our best to dodge the worst of the showers.  Our late afternoon walk around Lyme Regis was preceded by a visit to a garden we know at Morecombe Lake.  Here our friends marvelled at the views and the energy and enterprise of the owners who have put in untold hours of work to shape the hillside plot into a distinctive garden with unusual plants,  several water features and various sculptural installations which include a length of stainless steel flue-liner!  In Lyme Regis we bought some crabs direct from the boat and Nick prepared these for a crab salad.  We also squeezed in a cream tea and fish and chips at the Greyhound.

Although we are avid card-players we only managed one round of Spite and Malice.   Tempus fugit.  Come Saturday morning we hastened to Poole ferry terminal, picking up a bacon sandwich from the mobile transport café, this being our preferred option to break the fast.  Arriving in St Vaast I repaired to my bed for a rest before dressing for a party with Fefe and Francois.  There were platters of delicious and lovingly prepared canapes and later in the evening trays of sausage and pork snippets hot from the barbecue were handed around.  The bubbly flowed.  Feeling suitably festive guests began to jig around with Abba and Village People.  At some point Fefe and I cosied up to the bar for a bit of hushed gossip concerning some of the assembled and I lost count of the number of times she told me she loved me.  The feeling is mutual.

A Woody Conundrum

Paul and Viv come to stay with us at the beginning of May.  They are en route to a destination on the Cote de Granit Rose where they have rented a gite to share with one of their daughters and her family.  The last time they came to stay with us they were again en route to Brittany, to Saint Lunaire west of Dinard, where they would be celebrating the marriage of their son to a young French woman.  On that occasion they were accompanied by Hilary, a long-standing friend who is a painter.  Hilary fell in love with our house and did several preliminary sketches with a view to working a canvas for us.  We are still hopeful and waiting……………..

But things have changed since Hilary made those drawings.  One of the group of three Mimosa trees, the largest and most beautiful, which was a prominent feature in the painting envisaged, has since died and has been felled in stages.  Nick is reluctant to take the former tree right down to its stump because it is useful for the hammock.  But, coupled with the rusty coloured, diseased-looking deposit on the bark, this tree trunk is quite simply ugly.

Paul has an idea.  Let’s take the chain saw and take off some slices to expose the naked wood beneath the bark.  This done the effect is still stark and even though we hang a basket of Auricula from the top and place our lovely slate slab which sits on a metal basket thus serving as a ‘table’ for a coffee mug, a wine glass or three wooden mushrooms, we are yet a long way from a pleasing structure.  We must think on………..  The suggestion box is empty.

We take a walk each day and our first excursion takes round La Hougue.  This circular route never fails to please and is all the more enjoyable for its moments when you trace the fairly narrow fortification wall which skirts the fort and from which it is separated by a tidal moat.  One afternoon we go to Pointe de Saire.  We reach the region of the shore which I favour for shelling to the strains of a lone bagpiper.  The tides are particularly low just now and the channel which normally separates the beach at this headland from distal offshore rocks has dried out.  paintedtopshellWandering over the bed of this channel is like crunching over seabed and I see lots of painted top shells crawling about.  They feed on the sponges which colonise the boulders which normally remain submerged during the majority of low tides.  There are mussel beds on the seaward side of this outer rock outcrop.  I had no idea they were here, but something to remember for future low shore forays.

Really we have come to this shore because Paul fancies a bit of shelling and in particular he would like to find a wentletrap, I think because they are beautiful and scarce.  In the event wentletraps are not to be had but he and Viv make a collection of selected shells from this locality and this will be used as an assemblage to compare which what they might collect in Brittany.

The walk to the Point is made from the Pont de Saire and after our foray we amble back along the upper strandline,  which has shelly drifts, to pile into the car and head for home.  We have an invitation to aperos with the Poulets, which is a pleasant social interlude, to wrap up P and V’s visit.  The following day they head for Brittany with not just their souvenir shells, but the rules and scoresheets for the card game Barbu which Nick and I are reliably informed will greatly please our niece who loves playing cards, and so do I.

The Grandeur of Granite: Rocks which Rock and don’t Roll

Our short week in Scilly is drawing to a close.  I’ve not rated St Mary’s very highly during past visits.  It is the largest and most populated of the islands with an urban centre attached to the harbour at Hugh Town.  It lacks the wild rugged ambiance of the other islands.  At the time of our visit the island is getting ready for an invasion of folk who will be coming

map_stmarysfor the annual gig-racing festival.  Something like 150 gigs have been transported to St Mary’s in the preceding weeks and stored in fields prior to being brought down to Town Beach by Hugh Town from where the boats will be rowed to their starting buoys for the race back.  Around 4000 people mill around Hugh Town and its pubs during the weekend.  We are due to leave on the Friday when the event kicks off with the veteran’s race in the evening.  But on the day we are on St Mary’s there are gigs and crews very much in evidence and we get a flavour of what is to come.DSC00308 (2)

Our mission of the day is to walk round the Peninnis headland.  We make a circuit of The Garrison and across the top of Porthcressa Beach to approach the headland.  BlogIMG_4072 (2)Around the cliff top there are some very fine examples of granite tors and rocking stones.  We complete our circuit with a wander round the cemetery attached to St Mary’s Church in Old Town, final resting place of the late Harold Wilson.  We cross over the island to regain Hugh Town where our senses of smell draw us to a pasty shop and afterwards we have a hour or so before we are due to take our boat back to Tresco.  I find my way into a show selling sailing clothing and treat myself to a couple of things that I will enjoy taking to Fefe and Francois’ boat for our Mediterranean experience with them in June.

And so to Bryher

I think Bryher is my favourite Scilly island.  For one thing it’s a nice shape to negotiate.  You get dropped at one of two quays on the eastern coast. map_bryher It is a short hop from Tresco and during exceptionally low Spring tides you can cross on foot.  The island is 2 km long and 1km wide at it’s broadest point.  Easily circumperambulated in a day with plenty of time to stop, linger, look.

The so-called settlement at Great Pool / Hell Bay Hotel is the westernmost in England. The centre of Bryher is mainly low-lying with arable fields, pasture and housing with a shop, a café and Island Fish.  The latter is a small shack-type establishment where you can get freshly-made crab sandwiches or a lobster salad with change from your fiver or tenner!  On the west side is the Great Pool overlooked by the Hell Bay Hotel and in the south are sandy beaches, a common feature on the island, Rushy Bay being an example. BlogIMG_4018 (2)

Setting foot on terra firma Nick and I strike uphill, westwards.  WNickLobsterSalade pass Island Fish thinking to buy a crab sandwich but in the event the proprietor is out of crab but can offer us a lobster salad.  Although strictly a take-away establishment we are able to sit at the small table outside to eat, and enjoy our lovely little salad with the pot of tea she makes for us as a friendly gesture.  With that wonderful feeling of having eaten some food of the gods we set off and crest the ridge of the island then we vere north slightly to follow a track which skirts fields and which then loops round to take us Great Popplestone where we enjoy some mazes more modern than that of St Agnes.  There are also a few discreet cairns at the top of the beach there, each composed of a single boulder upon which a slightly smaller one is placed and so on………..  There is also a composite one.

On the beach here Nick lingers to take photographs of beach birds and I notice interesting patterns of stranded shells and also the fine and glistening quality of the sand.DSC00243 DSC00241 (2)

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We call in at Hell Bay Hotel and spend a happy hour in their lounge over a good cappuccino and the daily papers.  DSC00229 (2)Continuing around the coast we pass the western flank of Sampson Hill and suddenly happen upon a host of golden daffodils and a beautiful vista thrown in.

The meander round the rest of the island takes us along the southeast coast then by some leafy tracks and under leafy bowers to reach the quay where I gaze out over crystal clear water towards Cromwell’s Castle and from which we will be picked up and whisked back to Tresco.10BlogIMG_4065 (2)