Winding down

Rosemary and Bas went home on Sunday night.  They caught the overnight ferry from Ouistreham so they could sleep through the journey and get the best out of the daylight hours they had set aside for their visit to St V.  Much of the weekend was spent on the shore, and eating!

We went back to the Fuchsias on Saturday night for a treat.  I chose the same things to eat because I didn’t want to risk choosing something I would not like as much!  Once again my duck main course looked like a work by Mir.  In fact it bore a very close resemblance to her ‘Mother and Bird by Moonlight’!

During the weekend we made two lunches out of our clam harvests, the first a risotto, the second a passable Pasta al Vongole.  We also had a small tasting ceremony for the whelks we had collected from the shore at St Vaast.  I boiled these for 7 minutes with a bay leaf and some thyme and we ate them with a splodge of mayonnaise.  Rosemary and Liz found them ok.  Bas was happy to leave the tasting to the rest of us.

On Monday Nick went fishing with Gerard and took him to a wreck recommended by Daniel where they had a decent haul of pollack.  Liz and I took the car off in the afternoon to look at the various houses Nick and I had considered three years ago.  Both the houses at Grandcamp Maisy and La Cambe appeared to be unsold.

We drove into Carentan in search of a shop I had heard about which sells traditional kitchen equipment.  Such shops are called Quincailleries.  I’d like to get my own cast iron skillets instead of borrowing Daniel’s.  We found one that was too expensive.  I will look out for some at Vides Greniers (Car Boot Sales).

Liz wished to take us out for lunch before she leaves St V.  We chose a restaurant at Cosqueville, close to the north coast where we could walk a stretch.  Nick dropped us near the shore and drove back to St V to get a few things done, agreeing to come to Pointe de Neville in 90 minutes, giving us that time to walk the 5.5 klix of sand and gravelly beach.

It was a clear, sunny afternoon if a bit chilly.  The beach was amazingly clear of rubbish, with just a few thin strandlines of seaweed and not much else.  We picked up some pebbles, some seaglass and some small pieces of driftwood.  As we arrived at Pointe de Neville, Nick pulled up in the car.

Supper was one of those very easy affairs when you bring all the plates and pots of leftovers out of the fridge and lay up an array of goodies.  I made a crumble with our first pullings of forced rhubarb.  It is tender, fleshy and the most delicate pink.  Afterwards Nick played pool with Francois and Daniel.  They don’t get any quieter!  So Liz and I joined them and played some doubles.

Digging for clams

On Saturday we worked a very lovely shore at Rochers de Dranguet.  Nick and I discovered this shore 2 weeks ago and had fun raking in a rather random fashion for whatever clams we might find.  On this visit, with a larger group of us, I wanted to try and refine this technique and also look more closely at the rocks and take a sample of the fine red seaweeds which grow on the rocks at low water.

Myriads of tiny organisms live in the fronds of these weeds and if we are to learn how diverse these weed faunas are and how their diversity varies from place to place and shore to shore we need to take a bag full of the weeds, soak them in fresh water for a few hours then sieve over a 0.3mm sieve to catch all the molluscs, crustaceans, and single-celled shelled foraminiferans that fall out of the seaweeds………….. and identify them.  To stare at these tiny, intricately structured animals through a microscope is to see the world at the level of a grain of sand.

Unlike hunting for shrimps, prawns, crabs and lobsters on the shore – which requires cunning and stealth – bivalve molluscs, otherwise known as clams are sessile which means they just sit quietly in the sediments hoping not to be noticed.  Inside the two shells is a body consisting of a foot, a mantle to lay down shelly material at the growing edge of the shell, some metabolising organs and two siphons to take in water carrying food particles and to eject waste products.

All you need to dig for clams is the ability to look and learn.  Bas and I had lugged a large garden sieve, a fork, spade and rake to the shore.  In the event the mesh on our sieve was too fine for the gravels so we had to dig a hole then search it.  We started digging rather randomly and occasionally struck lucky.

After a while we noticed siphon holes developing in the sands and gravels as the water drained away and the sediments dried out a bit.  The siphon holes are the means by which the clam maintains contact with the outside world.  What we noticed on the shore is that not all the siphon holes were the same size or shape and that we could recognise, perhaps, six different types.  With experience we learnt to recognise the siphon holes for the different species of clam we were finding and then I got really cocky and would announce before I put spade to sand how many and what species I would collect!

Some species were more abundant than others: Dosinia clams (which are somewhat less tasty than some other types) were very plentiful but another species, Gari depressa, was very sparse.  This latter clam has a rather lovely common name.  It is known as the Sunset Shell.  Once the tide had turned at the end of the afternoon and the light was beginning to sink we hauled ourselves back up the shore to go home.  On the way up through the channel through the rocks I made a delightful find.  Sitting in the gravels with the light shining through was a Sunset shell.  Look at the picture below and you will see how apt its common name is.

Hunter-gatherers, we

Bas and Rosemary arrived on Friday morning.  Conveniently placed for the Portsmouth ferries they had taken an overnighter which gets into Ouistreham at 6-ish in the morning.  They came bearing croissants, mini-brioches, a tarte aux pommes and some plants for my garden: 2 Alliums and an everlasting Wallflower.  We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.  If I’m a keen sheller, Bas is indefatigable.

Even though we were going to do a proper tide at the end of the afternoon, he was all for a quick foray to the shore.  ‘My’ saltmarsh 10 minutes walk away was a good magnet.  It hosts a rare tiny snail called Truncatella subcylindrica, otherwise known as the looping snail.  Its looping gait is like that of a caterpillar as it moves by alternately attaching its foot and then its snout to the substrate.  It is difficult to find as it is minute and lives under stones and in shingle at high water mark.  Our snails were nestling on sediment under a slab.  The shell is beautiful, Bas took a photo of several animals (below).

We had one of my basic lunches – a soup of bizzed up potatoes and cauliflower stalks tarted up with florets floating on top, and a bit of charcuterie.  The idea of working a low tide is to chase the tide down; 2 hours is about the length of time in which I can sustain enthusiasm for this exercise.  If you start too soon by the time you get to low water and the zone of maximum interest your energy levels have flagged and at this time of year you cannot feel, or use, your fingers anymore.  There were a fair number of locals digging the sandflats by St Vaast harbour.  You have to squelch across slightly sinky muds to get to the sand banks which gradually become exposed.  About 50 locals were digging for razor clams.  With an onshore wind the tide didn’t really go out far enough.

Nick went to another bit of the shore to collect ingredients for the evening meal then joined us and dug up a few razor clams himself.  The rest of us were sieving the sands and collecting assorted clams as well.

Our neighbours were joining us for supper – we would be 8.  We were operating menu B because Daniel had been unable to buy fresh squid at a sensible price for his Encornets farcies, a signature dish.  So we were going to start with ‘flies’.   These were the limpets, gathered by Nick, which were placed on a buttered skillet, sauteed (and they do jump!) with a bit of vinegar.  Our main course was boned ribs of beef , wrapped in foil and cooked (by which I mean shown some heat) on our fire.  Nick and Daniel were in charge of the kitchen leaving me to lay the table.  I liked that!

Everyone ate the flies, with varying levels of enjoyment.  Daniel preferred to mop up the buttery juices from the skillets.  I think there was general self satisfaction at having eaten such a humble dish, albeit the calorific value of the limpet bodies was minimal.  I think Nick must have expended more energy collecting them than he derived from the eating thereof!  This must have been a problem for our hunter gatherer ancestors.  So as not to waste an iota, Bas collected up all the shells which he will set aside as a sample of one man’s gathering for one day’s meal and which can be measured for a size distribution analysis!

We ate the beef with potato puree – this is no ordinary mash as the the potatoes go through a large mouli and have quantities of butter and cream added.  It melts in the mouth.  There were Dijon and whole grain mustards, and a pot of  ‘horserubbish’ sauce which we have to bring from England.  With a cheese platter and salad, and a Tarte aux Pommes to follow we were well fed.

The rest of the evening was spent playing pool and the men managed several games.  When we joined them in the attic we women were encouraged to play a game of doubles.  Rosemary and I have played before but Liz and Anne were debutantes.  Anne was slightly nervous but potted a ball with her first shot.  We managed to spin our turn out (without much effort!) and spent the longest time trying to pot the last 2 yellows and 2 reds.  When we finally brought our marathon game to an end it was 2.10 a.m!

Elle est douée, ma soeur

Liz is staying with us at the moment having escaped the daily round of caring for her hens, bees, elderly Chocolate Labrador and a very large vegetable plot.  Not to mention all the other pies in which she has a fingers, in her country setting.  This sejour in France is allowing her to sit and be, and work on her latest needlecraft project.

We went to Cherbourg today to get some items from the Auchan supermarket and some DIY stuff from BricoDepot.  I found, in the gardening department of Auchan, a gorgeous Camellia  to fill a gap in our narrow border of climbing roses. This latest addition is a ‘raspberry ripple’ single variety with a large flower.  It will be perfect.  I did not know they sold plants, perhaps this is a new venture as the store looked as if it had been greatly extended since our last visit.

The Poisonnerie had moved to another part of the store and  it is a picture to look at.  All the fish are arranged, on and in thick beds of ice, the smaller species, like the whiting and mackerel, as if in life position, in small shoals.  But the thing that strikes the observer is that more than 3 times more space is given over to displaying a wonderful variety of crustaceans, shellfish, molluscs. It is surprising that, given that we British are an island race, our tastes in food from the sea should be so conservative, restricted, compared to our French neighbours.  It is especially so when you consider you only have to cross a relatively narrow tract of water that separates England and France to witness this great disparity.  I was very impressed by the different kinds of clams that were on sale, all with their colloquial names: Amandes, Praires, Coques, Palourdes, Coquilles St Jacques…..  You buy these alive, in their shells, to steam or grill according to taste.

As it happens the shells of these clams are the raw material for my sister’s latest project.  She covers the shells with lush velvets and plush fabrics, and then works intricate designs of colourful embroidered stitchery and French knots and finishes the work with beads.  Each half is then lined with a soft satin or silky fabric and finally the two halves are reunited, as they were in life, a perfect pair and stitched where the ligament originally held the two valves together.  A small button and thread loop act as a clasp.  These beautiful objects can be used as jewellery cases but might have other contents such as a sewing kit.

During the coming week I will enjoy watching a small stock of these lovely things take shape.

A Day in the Life

Liz arrived on the Tuesday evening ferry, pulling into our drive at about 8.15.  We had a fish pie ready with sprouts and cauli ready to steam – a very English supper, a ‘plat de la maison’.  My fish pies come in all guises, but they are usually based on pollack to which might be added any or some or all of the following: egg slices, mussels, prawns, scallops and bound with a white sauce which might be made with milk, soya and may or may not contain cheese and or parsley.  The topping can be mashed or sliced potatoes

Nick and I had spent the day gardening and tidying up the house.  There was laundry to do, some ironing.  The time just went.

We sat Liz down with a glass of wine whilst we caught up on family news and held our mini board meeting.  We need to manage the removal of some furniture and get it delivered to several destinations.  There are other decisions to take and we managed to get the business out of the way before supper.  We didn’t stay up very late and I had the pleasure of settling Liz in the little mauve room which is reserved for our lady guests.

We weren’t up especially early and ate a fairly functional breakfast in the kitchen whilst we planned the day ahead.  Before we left the house Nick gave Liz a tour of the garden and sought her advice on various plants, and the strategies we should adopt.  Her fingers are greener than ours.

First on the list was a drive to Barfleur to check up on the irrepressible Jolly.  She’s still there, floating and apparently deserted.  There is a steady trickle of curious passers-by who wander up, stare at her for a while, and move on.  She must have passed through whichever hoops were required in order to maintain her right to remain in the harbour.  We drove on to the Gatteville Lighthouse and Liz and I braved the bitter wind beating onto the beach to look for seaglass, shells and scraps for her collage work.  We then drove round the coast a bit so I could look at an embayment which I hadn’t noticed before.  It may be a nice shore to work.

We drove back to St V and made ourselves a soup lunch with a platter of crevettes roses to follow.  We’d just settled down to variously write cards, do the crossword or snooze when there was a ring at the door and Daniel walked in.  He was invited to pool later.  I also asked if he would like to eat with us – chicken cooked in cider – but the expression on his face told all.  He is a man of conservative tastes, but nevertheless an excellent cook within his repertoire.  He would come later in the evening.

We set off to walk round La Hougue in the bracing westerly wind.  We tramped round the shore until we came to the narrow sea wall which surrounds the inner fortifications and then wobbled our way round the tower in a clockwise direction.  The tide was very low and we could see the oyster workers going about their business and occasional locals were picking winkles amongst the weed-covered rocks.

At some point we dropped onto the beach and came across a mauve-coloured tangle of net which is raw material aplenty for arty-crafty work.  We took it to a spot above the high water mark, weighted it down with granite boulders and thought we might come back to retrieve it in a day or 2.  We walked on, across the rock platform and the sands, eventually coming up by the little Fisherman’s chapel.  On round the marina, we walked on and into the town to buy pastries for tea and Liz had a quick look in Maison Gosselin.  She’ll need a longer spell there to do it justice.

After tea and a joint crossword session (I do like doing them in tandem) I put the chicken dish together.  We were still eating this when Daniel arrived for some pool.  We bantered whilst we ate our cheese then adjourned to ‘les combles’.  Whilst Nick and Daniel played several games of pool, Liz did some embroidery work and I tinkered on my laptop.  It was a convivial soiree the wheels of which were oiled with a little bit of malt and Calva.  Sante!

The Plot Thickens

We are all up and ready rather earlier today but then Dick and Eileen want to go into St Vaast for some shopping before we drive up to Barfleur to check up on Jolly and then have some lunch before they start their journey home. Shopping is a bit of a damp squib because the shops are shut including the chandlery Dick was hoping to browse. I find it difficult to keep track of this because opening hours change with the seasons. They are able to get a few things at Intermarche however.

Before we go to Au Moyne de Saire, a restaurant which has agreed to open up specially for us, we drive to Barfleur to check on Jolly’s status. The vessel is now moored alongside the quay, sporting a Dutch flag, and the state of her dilapidation is even more evident.  Yesterday we guessed that she is perhaps an erstwhile tug or barge, American in style but possibly not in manufacture, of a 1930s, 40s or 50s vintage.  Mast and rigging including ratlines have been added at a later stage.  There is a fancy Japanese motorbike with a European number plate strapped on top of the wheelhouse, some ancient bicycles on the deck, a large hammock strung from the rear of the wheelhouse in which the crew had sat out the low tide the day before.  Added to this the deck has a load of new timber planks which we think might have been salvaged from the recently shed cargo of timber in the English Channel.

Many of the major components are thoroughly rusted and all the metal panels along the sides are dented.   The extent of fouling on the rudder and prop (see below) suggests Jolly has not been antifouled for about 10 years.  Despite her thoroughly disreputable appearance – there was something of the Caribbean pirate about her – when the engine had eventually been started up the day before, with two small puffs of smoke from her funnel,  the engine had putted into life sounding, as Dick said, “as sweet as a nut”.

Today there are maritime police standing on the quay and civil gendarmes are in the wheelhouse with the crew. There must be 6 officers involved. We can’t stay long because our booking is for 12.30 and the Hunters must leave St Vaast by 3. We ate a lunch that would carry us right through to bedtime! Dick chose hot oysters, some grilled in garlic butter, others in cream and Pommeau, each oyster served in its little individual china ‘pan’. I must look out for some of these to entice visitors who know they don’t want to try oysters a la nature!

As we purred our way back to the house in the Hunter’s Jaguar we all agreed that the whirlwind weekend had been great fun and must be repeated before too long.  Dick would like to do some fishing with Nick and I want to take Eileen to see the botanical garden at the Chateau de Vauville on the west coast of the Cotentin.  It is open on Saturdays and Sundays during March so we may get there this weekend with Liz and the Paynes.

Liz is arriving on Tuesday evening and I’m very excited about her visit.  Prising her out of Burton takes some doing as she has so many ties but at last she has taken the plunge and we must make the most of her sejour.

The Hunters are Coming!

It’s Saturday and the Hunters are coming.  Friends from Godalming, they are one dedicated, gung-ho, loyal Irish Rugby fanatic and her husband Dick!  There’ll not be a dull moment this weekend.

Nick and I had to get up early to get him underway for a day at sea with Francois.  I packed his English bangers, a very ripe Camembert and a small pot of homemade Damson chutney into a bag with a flask of black coffee.  I hope Francois has the sense to take his own coffee which will be far superior to mine!  They bought baguettes at the boulangerie on the way to the marina.  So they were away by 7.30 in order to get through the harbour gates before they close in advance of low water, when the marine empties to the point traffic in and out is impossible.

That left me with a day to get ready for our guests.  Why do I get all the fun?!  To market, to market to buy 2 fat cauliflowers for a Euro.  And other vegetables, salad stuffs, a couple of fromages to top up our personal cheesery and an apricot tart for teatime.  Eileen and Dick are due to arrive about 4p.m., an hour ahead of Nick’s eta after the harbour gates reopen.  I also bought a slice of multi-crepes.  This is a series of pancakes sandwiched together with layers of egg and tomato, smoked salmon, tuna mayonnaise, crab, prawns….  It is then cut like a cake and sold to hardworking housewives who need a lunch-time treat to spur them on with their chores.

I had opened the doors all the way through the house so I would hear the doorbell and was just sweeping the terrace at the back, the last task on the list, when Eileen walked through the house to greet me.  They’d timed their arrival just right as the first of two important rugby matches was due to start in 20 minutes.  They’d not eaten since their breakfast on the ferry and as we were booked to go out to dinner later on, settled for some bread and cheese, a glass or few of rose wine and a slice of tart with a cup of tea.

Dick and Eileen had just settled down in front of the first match (England v. Wales) when Nick drove into the drive.  As I opened the front door he heaved a weighty sack out of the car – a dead body?  Well lots actually and ready filleted which is always a bonus.  It is a perfect task for the homeward run when you have been rather a lot of miles out to sea.  All the waste sinks back whence it came, unless you are accompanied by a flock of hungry seagulls in which case the birds catch the innards before they hit the water.

In the kitchen he laid the pollack fillets out tenderly on a board and as the heap grew taller and wider it was evident that we would be in white fish for a good while.  There were also some whiting fillets which were to come in very handy later in the weekend.  Francois had also caught fish, though rather fewer, so he popped over to take some of the bounty back to his freezer.  With Eileen’s extra pair of hands it did not take us long to bag up Nick’s bag of the day and stow the fish in the freezer.

The rest of the afternoon and early evening seeped away as we got drawn into the excitement on the TV screen.  I am always struck by the aggressive drama of a pitched battle for a rugby ball when it is close the line.  It is a dynamic spectacle, warfare.  So I was very amused when at one point the French commentator said “C’est la guerre, c’est la guerre”.  It is even funnier when there is a dodgy moment……… a dubious tackle, a dropped ball…. and the commentator comes out with a flouncy petticoat of an expression like “Ooh la la!”

With the English victory came a chance to rebrew tea, iron blouses and shirts, feed our 7 kilo cat who has been walking all over us in his ‘notice me’ fashion.  The Ireland-Wales match will finish at 8.30 p.m. local time and we’ve booked dinner at the Fuchsias for 9.  Dick and Eileen’s Little Green Mascot is allowed to watch the match too, see below.  The match got off to a slow start but the final 30 minutes when there was only one point between the two sides made excellent viewing.  The last 10 minutes were nail-biting for our Irish friends.  An Irish win will give them their first Grand Slam since 1948.  With a drop goal pulled out of the bag on both sides in the final 5 minutes, the Irish win the day.  Despite time pressures we are obliged to open the bottle of champagne which has been chilling in the fridge.  Just a taste Dick said, but the bottle is emptied in record time and we arrive at the restaurant promptly at 9……….

………….. to find we have been given the round table in the window of the conservatory which looks out over the very secluded sub-tropical (the brochure describes it as ‘English’) garden with its Echiums, Eucalyptus, Cordyline, Parrotia, Acanthus, Mimosa and mature Banana trees.  The latter were bearing green fruits when I last saw them in the autumn.  It’s too dark of course but it is rather pleasing that we have managed to have this table on the last 4 occasions we have eaten chez Fuchsias.  The Hotel is renowned amongst the Brits who visit St Vaast as part of their sailing activities, and others who know this part of Normandy.  It’s a 19th century coaching inn which has been run as a hotel by three generations of the Brix family since 1950.  The entire facade is clad in a magnificent Fuchsia which scrambles vigorously across the masonry, benefitting from the sheltered aspect of the frontage.  By some strange quirk of coincidence my friend Angela gave me a fuchsia in the summer of 2005, one of several cuttings she had taken from a, shhhh, certain plant.  Two weeks earlier we had just found our St Vaast house and were in the process of negotiating a purchase!

The current Mme Brix is maitre d’ for the evening and takes our order.  We are also given the news that Eileen’s sons have phoned the restaurant and organised a bottle of champagne to start our meal!  We linger over the menu, finally making our choices and we relax, perhaps for the first time since the Hunters arrived and I hope we will stay awake.  Dick and Eileen were up at 5.  Dick thinks the chef may have changed since they last ate at Fuchsias.  There are a number of changes I have noted in the past year: the plates of food are ever more works of art, there is less and less food on the plate, and much more of the fish and meat are offered either raw (I chose a delicious carpaccio of brill) or less than well done – check out the pic below of my duck main course!  In an age when it is all to easy to eat too much I rather welcome the smaller portions of exquisitely prepared and presented food and I don’t mind paying for that.

Without really thinking we chose a white and a red wine and forgot to ask for water.  At the end of the meal, the effects of a long day, red, pink and white wine, 2 bottles of fizz and not much to soak that lot up with, were catching up with me.  Apparently I was funny on the way home, I do remember that I lost a shoe twice.  It is a blessing the Fuchsias is only an 8 minute walk from the house.  We walk in to find the cat cosying up to the Leprechaun (see below). I had the presence of mind to drink a glass of water before bed.

I took my time getting going in the morning.  I woke quite early, drank more water and propped myself up with the Independent crossword which I had started on the trip over.  I had only solved 3 clues during the crossing, but by the time I got up I had only 2 gaps to fill.  This was the morning I came to experience the joy of our extension.  It felt a bit like being in an hotel, but in the nicest sense.  By the time I got downstairs I was fully laundered and ready to roll, all from behind closed doors.  Dick and Eileen trickled downstairs at 11.15 and immediately dashed out to get some things before the shops shut at midday.  Eventually we breakfasted on baguettes and melt in the mouth croissants just after 12.

It had always been the plan to walk some coast.  It turned out that Eileen and I would be the walkers and Nick and Dick would drop us, explore some of the villages along the north coast and then pick us up at Rocher d’Angre.  On the way we stopped at Barfleur and spotted a vessel in the mouth of the harbour.  It was an hour shy of low water and the boat was obviously aground.  More about this vessel, sporting the name Jolly,  anon.

Eileen and I were deposited at our start point at Havre de Roubary.  I’m a fast walker but Eileen’s pace is like a drill sergeant’s.  We crunched our way across the pebbly, gravelly zones of the shore, searching out horizons where our walking boots would sink least in the damp sediments.  We talked ten to the dozen and picked up some lovely worn seaglass along the way.   We eventually spotted the car and then two figures walking towards us from Pointe de Neville.  The tide is about 30 minutes into its flow and I can see that on a low spring tide you get across the short causeway onto the rocky headland and have a good poke around the waterline to look for interesting beasts.  We had probably walked 4 km.  Towards the end of our march I spotted a large, gnarled, sea-worn piece of tree – a great find which we picked up and handed over to the menfolk to take back to the car.

It was coming up to 3pm and we were all hungry, although had always reckoned on a late lunch.  Nick could not resist making a detour via Barfleur to check on the marooned Jolly.  She was still sat there, an hour after low tide and Nick said she would be afloat in less than an hour.  We chose an outside table at the Cafe de France with a vantage point to watch for movement in the masts of the stranded boat, and ordered a drink.  It turned out to be rather more than an hour before Jolly was capable of getting under way.  By this time she was well and truly afloat and swinging broadside onto the harbour entrance.  There was a bit of mystery about the boat, for which I will have to do a separate post.  Suffice to say there is a story there and Dick is going to hunt it down and write an article for one of the Classic Boat magazines.

By the time we got back home we were more than a bit peckish.  I quickly whipped up some batter and frittered the whiting which we ate with tartare sauce and French bread.  We then all crashed.  Later when we were reassembled I made a simple pea risotto on top of which I served some of the crab meat Nick and Dick had de-shelled.  Daniel, ex-fisherman who knows a thing or two in matters of seafood,  bought and cooked several kilos of crab craws, which they call ‘pattes de crabe’ in France and we bought a couple of kilos from him.   Literally translated this means ‘crab paws’!  Once the kitchen was clear Eileen and I sought our beds, the men played a few games of pool.  Yet again I drift off to the sound of pool balls tumbling into the ball tray.

Waking to the rumble of tractors

As I coast up the shallow slopes of dreamworld the unmistakable sound of tractors passing the house seeps into my consciousness. The oystermen are on their way to work. As a large sign on the outskirts to the port informs the visitor, St Vaast La Hougue is ‘Le berceau de l’Huitre Normande’ – the cradle of the Normandy oyster. Here it all started and much has been written about it although a quick search on the Internet has drawn a blank for an informative site, but I will continue to look for a suitable site link.  It is a matter of pleasure to me that I can enjoy the friendly sound of a tractor, with its connotations of agriculture and productivity, except in this case, aquaculture of oysters and to a lesser extent mussels, in the waters off St Vaast and Utah Beach to the south.

Before I went outside I needed to draft a reply to a fellow CS Council member about the disposal of shell collections with scientific value.  I laboriously pasted my replies into his document, amended the name of the file, then clicked Save, realising just too late that I had saved to a Temporary Internet folder.  Could I find the document?  Word disclaimed all knowledge and even though I could see the file sitting in a folder with some rubbish name, when I attempted to resave the original file just so I could get a look at the contents of that folder, I could not access it as I could find no way into the hierarchy of folders leading me to the target……  Until Nick came in and after our customary shouting match over troubleshooting incidents such as this, he clicked something and up popped the document.  But the time it took………. I could have retyped it over more than once in the time, but in your mind you know you will never find the same words again!

Lunch was brief and aimed at sustaining rather than putting us to sleep.  I grizzled a few scallops in some garlic and ginger then popped them in the bizzed up courtbouillon vegetables and seabass stock, with a dollop of creamy naughtiness and away we go – yet another incarnation of fish soup.  Scallops (both in their shell and imported shucked ones) are easy to buy here and not expensive.  There is a big fishery for them out of St Vaast.

The rest of the day was devoted to the garden with more seed-sowing, planting out my mother’s two blueberry bushes to join their fellows, and weeding.  Late in the afternoon Marie-Christine popped in, having seen Nick working in the garage.  I am informed that he is ‘courageux’ and that’s as maybe.  He certainly is courageous but the adjective also means ‘spirited’ and ‘hardworking’………. so all of the above.  By now he has refixed the cupboards in his evolving workshop and can start to decant tools and equipment from the old one.  When M-C sees me in my scarecrow garb and fly-away hair she tells me I am courageuse too so, again, all of the above I’d like to think.

I know Nick will stay in the workshop until the last minute so supper is easily prepared and can wait.  I am tired and could do with a bath but haven’t time, so pretend I’ve had one and change my clothes and feel revived.  Is this why there are uniforms for certain professions?  To put you in the mood, and make you feel proper?

Half way through supper Francois calls to book a pool session.  Daniel has already booked in, so some time after 9 the men retire to the top floor and soon I hear all that rowdiness spiralling down the stairs.  I am left to clear up and draft up some blog.  I don’t even look at the blank TV screen in the salon-sejour.  Well done me.

When Nick draws the curtains in the morning and places a mug of tea beside me, bless him, I see that it can be another day in the garden.    I allow myself half an hour with one of Edith Wharton’s New York Short Stories whilst Nick talks to his sister Jenny on the phone.  We breakfast on baguette and Tiptree marmalade which is a marriage made in heaven.  We are out of butter so Nick makes do with some unpasteurised clotted cream.

I’ve finished sowing seeds for the time being, so most of the day was taken up with weeding and pruning.  Hydrangea, Fuchsia and woody Salvias have now been cut back and shaped.  One of the latter is a variety called Salvia microphylla Hot Lips.  Whoever named it had a sense of humour: it has white and red bicoloured flowers with red lips.  I bought this plant at Hampton Court Flower show 2 years ago when I was a guest of Eileen Hunter.  As it happens she and her husband are due to arrive on Saturday for a long weekend.  Eileen is a gas, we should have a lot of fun.

In the process of cutting back and yanking out weeds I discovered the Phlomis plant which Charles Evans gave us.   I’d forgotten it was there, also the Lily of the Valley which I ended up digging up and dividing into pots.  I have found Lily of the Valley difficult to establish, but then again it won’t help to keep digging it up and moving it around.  My ruthless cutting back of shrubs and removal of the numerous plants of Arum italicum that have set themselves rewarded me with the offer of space to plant out some hollyhocks I have had waiting in the wings.

By the end of the afternoon I was ready for a change of scene and decided to give 30 minutes to the treadmill.  Half way into my session Nick knocked at the door and told me he had brought 2 visitors………… ‘What!! Now?!**  It is Claire and Ty from over the road who are down from Paris for a site meeting with their architect.  They are curious to see the gym and bathroom.  Again I am caught unawares with fly-away hair and a red face so I must just be courageuse!  After they have gone I finish the film I was watching, have a quick shower and cobble some supper.

A year ago I bought 25 metres of curtain material for the windows of the salon sejour.  At very long last I find the moment is right to lay the fabric out and, with Nick’s help, measure out 8 lengths of 282 cm, allowing for the pattern repeat of 55 cm.  It is a bit nerve-wracking but after checking and triple-checking my maths, and aligning the pattern I manage to cut the lengths and mark the tops of each pair with different colour threads.  The relief is so good I feel the curtains are as good as made!

Nick phoned Barney this evening and they had a good chat, Nick then went out to the workshop to do a bit more tidying up before turning in.  He needs to get up at 6.30 tomorrow morning to go fishing with Francois.  For a shortish fishing trip they don’t usually bother with food but they will be out for up to 10 hours so some sustenance will be necessary.  I have defrosted a pack of Waitrose Cumberland sausages to grill.  Before I go to bed I grill them and manage not to eat one.

Life is a bit more leisurely

By Tuesday the pace of life is slowing down, thankfully. I complete the shell report and email it to my contact in Cornwall. I get an email back a bit later acknowledging this and mentioning another archaeological project which is currently seeking funding which will entail excavations on the seabed and intertidal zone around Scilly. If it does ahead I will be involved in the marine mollusc analysis which will be particularly rewarding as I already know the coasts around Scilly as shell-collecting havens.

The weather is beautiful: sunny, warm and windless so I can spend much of the day in the garden. Finally, a week after arrival, I made a start on weeding, starting in the top right corner where the giant Allium schubertii are growing up through roses. It is a ‘tumbleweed’, native to the Eastern Mediterranean, with a flower head which may be up to 45 cm in diameter. The longer flower stems forming the head are often sterile, the shorter ones fertile, and the whole rolls in the wind, eventually scattering the seed over a wide area. The irregular nature of the stiffened flower pedicels gives a bursting firework like effect, in colours of purple, violet and pink in June. The colours fade as the seed head dries but the heads are brilliant for flower arrangements, I have a few from other years in a large glass goldfish bowl.

I see that the Delphiniums have been munched to pieces by slugs. I’ll have to do something about that before the end of the day. Working my way down the flower bed there are other heavily grazed casualties and there are dead stems and plants to remove. After a couple of hours the stretch I have worked is transformed.

At the supermarket I needed to pick up something for supper and settled for some whelks and cooked crab which we could eat with bread, mayonnaise and a salad, it will be very simple. I called in at the garden centre to buy some repotting compost and some all purpose compost too. I found a suitable pot to move the parlour palm into. All day Nick has been painting the workshop.

With a simple supper planned there is time for a session on the treadmill which I can now ‘enjoy’ with a film. Francois’ son has loaded hundreds of films onto a little black box from which I can make my selection. They are all in French and the first one I chose was dubbed. Even with the volume up to its maximum to counteract the noise of the treadmill it is an uphill struggle to understand the dialogue in this very atmospheric and rather gruesome thriller. But the time flies and before I know it I have done 40 minutes. Just time for a shower then supper. All this in our private ‘suite’! Pictures below will enable those who have visited the house to see what we have done………. viz. we have put in a plain white door which matches the pre-existing cupboard in our bedroom which is an original house feature and hey presto we step into the ‘ new cupboard’ C S Lewis style!

Later, in the evening Nick went over the road for a game of darts with Daniel, I slumped in front of our French TV and watched several episodes of CSI Miami, thankfully in English in my brain-dead state, back to back.

Wednesday and another lovely day so the garden’s the place for me. See gallery above. I round up 50 sluggish pests and dispose of them humanely. I’ve brought over all the seed packets I could find in Godalming, some rather mildewed where they have been rained on in the greenhouse. I’m going to sow some of everything as part of this drive Nick and I have to use everything up and start again, the larder, the freezer, cleaning materials, toiletries etc etc. If we weren’t too concerned about fresh fruit and veg we could live off our supplies for weeks……….. Today I have set seed for Larkspur, Poppies, Cleome, Cowslips, Sunflowers, Sweet Basil, Statice, Helichrysums.

At the end of the day there’s time for another session on the treadmill before we eat some of the massive sea bass which I have defrosted and poached in white wine and courtbouillon vegetables in the fish kettle. A fish this size is more appropriate as a feast for several diners. But the fish has languished over long in the freezer in Godalming. It was a wise decision to cook it. We ate some and it was tasty enough but the texture had suffered. Good to mix with other fish though, in fish pies, cakes.

Just time to blog up before I again fall asleep in front of the TV……….. Tomorrow it will be different!

Wot no fish?

So Nick and co went fishing on a gift of a day. As Nick remarked when he looked down into the otherwise murky Marina waters, “it is gin-clear”! They fished for six hours and came home with a small pollack and a few whiting. Well that’s better than nothing. Arriving back at 3.30 or thereabouts they poured themselves “a petit whisky” and retired to the pool table, only to be plucked from their game 15 minutes in by Daniel over the road who came to fetch them to join the rest of the ‘team’ watching England play France, before they all returned to Paris. It was a good day to be a Rosbif amongst Frogs!!

By this stage I was on countdown to supper time, Daniel, Anne and Francois due to arrive about 8. Francois arrived early to help Nick troubleshoot some problems setting up the hard drive which has hundreds of films on it in the gym.

I cooked a Persian lamb dish which Rosemary Payne cooked for us a week ago when we drove to their home just outside Portsmouth for supper and some shell talk with Bas. I also cooked the Marmalade Bread and Butter Pudding she had given us. Not a good idea to experiment on guests but it seemed to work ok, although it all took much longer than I bargained and the kitchen looked like a bomb-site after. I even cooked some of the whiting fillets caught earlier as slivers coated in batter. As a family we have always called these goujons but Anne tells me they are ‘beignets’ and my dictionary tells me this is French for ‘fritters’ so I like that……….. Fun evening, such delightful neighbours and friends.

Monday and I really must settle down to draw up the assessment of some archeaological marine shell from a Middle Age castle at Restormel in Cornwall. I have promised this for mid-March. It is a day’s work but I only get to start it in the evening. The morning is taken up with examining a cobble Nick hooked whilst fishing. He brings these little bits of seabed back to me so I can check them out for their marine life. They often have pretty seaslugs on them, not the slimy horrors we find on land (and not everyone thinks they are horrible either) but exquisite and colourful animals which tend to feed on a range of other marine invertebrates, many of these carrying toxins which the slugs can take on board for their own use – makes them poisonous to eat and therefore protects them in turn from predation.

Check out Jim Andersons Scottish Nudibranchs website (see link) and view his gallery.

The phone rings and whoops, there is Gerard, an octogenarian who owns the boat opposite Nick’s and who loves to go fishing with Nick, because Nick has know-how. Does Nick want to go out to play? Yes please.

After my lunch I wrote some cards then drove up to Marie-Christine to take her up on her invitation to a session in their hot tub. The afternoon is warm and the tub is sited in a sun-trap. We get in and it feels like a too hot bath. We struggle for 15 minutes then have to get out and it is then I notice the temperature is 40.5 degrees and that I look like a lobster! It seems those 4 naughty lads from Saturday night jacked up the heat.

Back at the house Nick has just returned with No Fish. This is unusual as March is the month for pollack and is the basis for the apparent false pretence under which Nick persuaded me to sign up for 4 weeks in St V! No matter, we have some tea and a chunk of Marmalade pudding and cream and I finally get round to tackling the oyster shell assessment.