Contents of a Sea Captain’s Chest

About ten years ago I acquired a sea captain’s chest from my friend Stella.  She had been given it by the erstwhile Treasurer of the Conchological Society.  Prior to that, facts are a bit hazy and it is not known when Cyril Rattray acquired the chest, from whom, or precisely what its contents might have comprised at the time he acquired it.

But it would certainly have contained some shells.  Stella kept the sea chest in the Zoology Hut in her Cornish garden for a good number of years.  In time she added to the shell collection inside and used the contents for teaching and lecturing purposes.

A sea chest is a type of wooden trunk used by sailors for storage.  Historically, a sea chest would have been a sailor’s sacred personal possession, and sailors did not touch each other’s sea chests without permission. All number of things would be held in the chest, including eating utensils, extra clothes, curios from various voyages, and mariner’s papers – papers which detailed a sailor’s skills and official position on board ship. Sailors also kept references from former employers and mementoes of home in their sea chests.

Some sea chests were used for storing natural history objects.  These would have been collected and bought by the sailors as they travelled the seas.  They were a marine form of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ .  Such artefacts emerged in the 16th century.  Shells have had appeal for the human eye from the Stone Age, to judge from archaeological evidence.  Once the shell is empty and clean it is an easy and desirable object to keep.

Many sea chests were extremely well built, and as a result sea chests have become coveted antiques in some communities, with some families retaining sea chests which belonged to their ancestors. In addition to antique sea chests, it is also possible to find modern replicas, which can be used to store a wide variety of items.

The design of a sea chest varies, depending on the era in which it was produced, and its country of origin.  Many sea chests have a distinctive profile, with a large bottom and slanting sides which lead to a smaller top. Some sea chests had curved tops, while others were left flat for ease of storage, and many included drawers or shelves for the purpose of storing small and especially important items. Often a sea chest would have a sturdy lock and heavy handles so that it could be moved easily.

Storage space on a boat is often limited, so sailors would be expected to fit all of their personal possessions into their sea chests which would be kept in bunkrooms, butted against the wall, or in another location which would be as out of the way as possible.   Some were quite ornate, with elegant carving and beautiful construction, while others were kept plain and relatively simple.

My sea chest is indeed elegant with a geometric radial ‘sunray’ design on the lid which is convex.  I believe it is mahogany with ebony beading and trim.  It has four fitted trays with numerous compartments, each laid out in a different design.  The trays have rope handles for easy lifting and they stack one on top of another.

Whilst friends were staying with us over New Year we had occasion to look inside my chest and admire some of the shells it contains.  My friend Anthea took some pictures including one of the specimen she found to be most appealing.  It was a shell of Janthina.

Through a Lens Brightly

Our visitors were lucky to get home before the worst of the snow and blizzards hit the south and southeast.  We were already getting disenchanted messages from our sources back home when the occasional flurries we had been seeing here, settled into more persistent, large-flaked snowfalls.  After a couple of days given over to tidying up and being rather lazy we took ourselves out for a walk one morning, along La Voie Verte.

This is a wide trackway, prohibited to motor vehicles, which skirts the town and is still undergoing extension.  It now takes us to a point on the sea wall about half way between the town and the Pont de Saire.  We walked its length and then came back into St Vaast with the sea on our left.  It was the first time I had seen snow on a beach, its edge defined by the lap of the furthest wave of the high tide. It was lunchtime so there were hardly any people about, just a Frenchman throwing a ball for his Jack Russell.

For lunch we had homemade soup and baguette overlaid with dressed crab.  Two days earlier Daniel had gifted us 6 fine spider crabs.  He had overseen the cooking and left me with full instructions.  He made sure we knew that the bright orange female roe surpasses, in his opinion, the flavour and delicacy of caviar!

Between us Nick and I put in 5 man-hours dressing these crabs.  Some had formed the basis of a risotto offered to Francois and Anne for dinner the previous evening, some would be frozen but we had saved the brown meat, including roe for lunches.  Mixed with breadcrumbs and a little vinegar (because it is so rich) it is a wonderful spread.

Let’s Cook Ensemble

My last post was based on shared experiences.  I’m staying with that theme but moving away from the seashore and back to the kitchen.  When our friends the Hunters, and Anthea, arrived for New Year they came laden with edible goodies, remnants from their Christmas larder.  And what remnants:  homemade wholemeal bread, potted lobster, salmon, blinis, pots of dairy, salted duck joints destined for a confit.   And a bowl of potted shrimps, one of Dick’s specialities.  I served this as an extra starter for their welcome supper.

I’d found a sea bass at the bottom of the freezer for the main course.  Caught in late summer it looked fine.  Anthea said had I ever cooked bass in a salt crust.  Rick Stein has a recipe.  Fortunately I had the relevant cookery book out here and we tried it.  You need 4lb of coarse sea salt for a big fish.  It’s a lot of salt so the unrefined, cheapest variety is best.  I followed the RECIPE (this one is close) and added cooking time for my larger fish.  Too much, it only needed 40 minutes for a 4lb fish.   But it was great. You crack the crust, lift it off and remove the skin to reveal the moist fish inside.  Mrs Waste-Not that I am, I saved half the salt to see if I could reuse it, notwithstanding the crust is made by adding two egg whites.  It’s in an open bowl in the cold (no problem finding cold stores right now!) and seems fine for general cooking purposes.

Over the course of the long weekend Dick, Eileen and Anthea were with us, Dick finished his duck confit with garden herbs and Chinese Five-Spice and lathered it in goose fat.  Then cooked it in a medium-heat oven for 3 hours.  We shared one joint on their last evening with roast vegetables.  The shreds of duck and crisp skin were wonderful.  It was one of several small courses, Fuchsias-style.

I served two more when the Poulets came to dinner a couple of nights ago.  It is a great discovery for me, not only how to make it but also as the meat is cooked in goose fat (slowly in the oven) you only need to finish it on the night (7 minutes in the frying pan to crisp the skin) then shred it to serve.   No more knife-edge ‘will the meat be cooked in time, or too soon?’  The other thing I find is that GOOSE AND DUCK FAT are much better for me than other animal fats – fewer issues with the dreaded cholesterol.

During their stay we had smoked salmon and potted lobster blinis, poached salmon and home-grown lemon parcels.  I bought 4 dozen oysters and we cooked some with spinach au gratin under Dick’s guidance.  On the morning of their departure Nick and Dick went for a quick trip on Aroona to see what fish might be about.  They came back with lots of whiting some of which were turned into beignets.  I was rarely alone in the kitchen the whole time they were here.  It was great fun cooking ensemble.  You can’t have too many cooks in my kitchen!

Ripplescape at Reville

This post is for Jessica.  I hope she will like it.  She keeps a blog, different in focus from mine, but this time we have converged synchronously.  I looked at her post for JANUARY 3RD and my eyes popped.  The day before I had walked the fellow of her Gower shore, on the northeast corner of the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy.

On January 2nd we and our guests drove out to the work-in-progress-farm of some French friends, Martine and Alain, at Le Vast.  They had house guests too and gave us a warm welcome, some bubbles and canapes to celebrate the New Year and we chatted in mixed English and French, in various stages of fracture (!), on subjects as diverse as assisted suicide, the standing of Sarkozy with his people, and the March weekend we will spend in Paris with a group of French friends when England play France at Rugby.  Before we left, we posed for a PHOTO along their frontage.

The St Vaast contingent drove back to 104, we ate bread and cheese, then we stalwart females took ourselves off for a coastal walk.  Coincidentally we met Martine and her sister with their dogs on the same shore.  Their menfolk were asleep by the “cheminee” also!

It was a good walk, with an outgoing leg in sunny, mild conditions along A SHELTERED SHORE.  We returned through the villages, the sun went in and suddenly it was very cold.

But the memorable aspect of this walk is the amazing ripplescape we found at the headland where, at low water, there is a small offshore islet, separated by a channel through which the sea must course in vigorous weather conditions.  The sands around the point were pocked, pinched, crinkled, folded into a complex, structured arrangement of bedforms.

My friend Jessica sees beauty around her everywhere she looks at the coast: pattern, texture, colour, humour.   When I’m on the beach I mostly see SHELLS – other things too, but it is the shells that excite.  What a happy marriage then of shell shapes in these bedforms.  It looks as if some giant shells have been pressed into the sands to create the regular patterns we saw at Reville.

On January 3rd Jessica posted several images, taken on New Year’s Day 2010, showing A RIPPLESCAPE on the Llangennith end of the beach, close to the island of Burry Holms, on the Gower in South Wales.  Imitation is a sincere form of flattery so I am glad to post my pictures, taken a day later some 425 km away, of the extraordinary sandy relicts of a recently receded tide.  What complex interaction of currents, wind and tidal effects must have produced these clearly defined ornamented surfaces on the sands at these two coastal locations?  I wonder how many other beaches were sculptured in the same way?

The Eaters and the Eaten (or, Charles Behaving Madly!)

On 30th December Charlotte, Ryan and Ted moved into Hotel Les Fuchsias, the Hunters and Anthea arrived and the stage was being set for our New Year’s Feast, la Veille de Nouvel An.  It remained for Susie and Charles to join us, which they did during the afternoon of the 31st, Nick having picked them up from the Cherbourg ferry as foot passengers.

Our table at the restaurant was booked for 8.30 and we duly arrived, to find Charlotte and Ryan waiting for us in the bar.  This was a welcome sight.  Ted has been less than reliable about going to bed and staying asleep – he had already rotted up one of his parents’ proposed evenings out.

So nine guests were shown to a pretty oval table in the window of the conservatory.  Our set menus waiting.  The menu is termed un Menu Degustation which is not, as it sounds, Disgusting, but actually quite the reverse.  It is a Tasting meal so each course is small and beautiful.

We took lots of pictures, some of our food.  It was a happy occasion.  Sometime after midnight UK time we wended our way back to the house.  We were still fit to play some pool!

Round About in St Vaast

Looking back from the threshold of this pristine new year, the last week of 2009 blurs into a series of excursions and celebrations which culminated in a wonderful New Year’s Eve at Les Fuchsias. That event merits its own post but this gallery of personalities proves that we did, at times, bestir ourselves from the wine-soaked conviviality of comfy sofas, unruly discourse round the dining table and cavalier pool games in the loft.

Christmas 2009 Mk II

We enjoyed a classic Christmas Day.  A small boy woke to an overnight delivery of presents which he opened in bed with his parents. He and the grown-ups played with these during the morning, whilst a lunch of Roast Duck and accompaniments was prepared.  After lunch we opened the Christmas Tree parcels.  Happy bunnies all.