Of Oysters and Ormers

Our local shores have been fruitful during the recent spate of tempestuous weather.  The normally sheltered east coast of the Cotentin has experienced biting easterly winds, gnashing their teeth around the chinks in our fabric armour.  Thank goodness for the naff pair of shiny purple salopettes I bought in C&A eons ago, and which I wear for fieldwork on the shore in winter (when I hope I won’t meet anyone I know!) …. and also the more up-to-date but rather staid padded goosedown coat I bought last year.  My friend the Carpenter has been sporting the survival suit he reserves for fishing in cold, wet conditions.

We’ve been exploring the  long stretch of sandy coast which runs south from St Vaast to Utah Beach.  Much of this stretch is given over to oyster and mussel culture and at low tide you can walk around the trestles to which the plastic mesh sacks of oysters are secured.  Inevitably, in this very rough weather, some sacks have become detached and they end up strewn across the beaches.  Many of them lie unclaimed and the oysters die, but sacks get ripped open and the oysters ‘escape’ and are scattered by the tides.  We collect these and feast.  There are plenty enough to freeze too, out of their shells, for hot dishes.  On one day we find a full sack of live oysters and lug them back to the car.

There are driftlines of assorted debris, abandoned by the tides.  Cockles and other clams have been washed out of their beds and can be picked up.  One day Nick finds a fully grown ormer (abalone) with the animal intact, but moribund.  It is beyond eating in our view (although our friend the doctor later tells us he might’ve eaten it!) but the shell is beautiful when it is cleaned up.  This is a consistent feature of abalones worldwide.

Ormers are primitive gastropod molluscs in the order Archaeogastropoda. They are sea snails with a low and open spiral structure.  They have an arc of respiratory holes running down one side of the shell’s edge.  The shell’s exterior surface is dull, brownish, rough and bumpy.  It gives no clue as to the dazzling inner layer of the shell which is composed of nacre or mother-of-pearl as it is more commonly known.  It is highly iridescent which makes the shells attractive to humans as decorative objects, and as a source of colourful mother-of-pearl for making jewellery, buttons, fishing lures, small spoons……..

Finding an ormer on my local shore is rather exciting.  They occur on all the Channel Islands, and are collected under certain restrictions which are designed to protect the local populations from over-exploitation.  (Thanks to my friend Paul Chambers who has allowed me to post a couple of his photos of animals in situ on Jersey.)  They are considered a delicacy with a taste quite unlike any other marine molluscs.  They also occur, but not so plentifully, on Breton coasts, and sparingly in Normandy.  I can only guess from where this animal had washed in.  According to Francois, they are certainly known to live on rocks near the Gatteville lighthouse north of us.  My guess is that there are ormers living on the rocks low on the shore, and into the sublittoral, on the far side of Ile Tatihou and I hope I will be able to prove this hypothesis one fine day.

Two Men in search of Razors

My trip to England spanned the exceptional spring tides at the beginning of March.  Another set, with predicted ebbs of potentially similar extent, are timetabled for the end of the month.

On the afternoon Mum and I returned to England, Daniel and Nick went to a local shore to dig for razor shells.

Razor clams live in a perpendicular position in soft sediments and the siphon holes are fairly conspicuous and about the same diameter as the shells themselves.  Sometimes the shells will spout as you walk above them and the trick is to dig very quickly to find the clam.

The long thin shell and the strong muscular foot of a ‘razorfish’ mean they can dig deep and rapidly and it needs practice to grab them before they bury too far.  A more effective method is to carry a pot of cheap salt and trickle a little down the siphon hole.  The change in salinity level causes the razor to rise to the surface.

Such techniques are not necessary when Daniel is on the hunt.  The shore they search is on a sand bank south of the St Vaast pier.  There are perhaps another fifteen men razoring there.  Whilst Nick digs with a fork, Daniel plunges his hand into the sand wherever he sees a spout and grabs the razors and pulls them out.

The clams were in plentiful supply, although Nick and Daniel had searched exactly the same place in March 2009 and found none.  How the populations might move around is a bit of a mystery.  But also the clams are probably much more numerous than we suppose.  For every one razor that is taken there are probably 20 more in the sediments immediately adjacent.  Despite years of exploitation these clams are not being fished out.  And, the area that can be fished by people on the shore is small when one considers the extensive sandy seabed which extends way offshore, and which is never touched.  These huge razorfish beds act as a source of constant recruitment.

As Nick and Daniel retreat when the tide has turned, the razors pop up involuntarily to the surface.  Possibly a change in the water table causes this.  During the afternoon they collected about 150 between them though they could have taken twice as many.

On the way home Nick met Anne at the boulangerie and invited the Poulets for a razor fest.  Back at the house Daniel cooked some on the open fire.  The others were steamed open then dressed in a sauce made with white wine, cream, shallots.

Uneaten razors are never wasted, they can be frozen to add to seafood dishes, risottos, pasta al vongole.  I’ve seldom seen razor clams offered for sale in England although I did see them at a fish market in Cardiff some years ago.  Certainly they are rather strange looking and perhaps their appearance puts some people off.  A fellow conchologists once joked that they reminded her of second-hand condoms.  Need I say more? But this is a shame because as clams go they have a sweet clammy flavour and are definitely worth a try.

Winter Gardens

Whilst in England I visited Stella and Rose in Cornwall.  Their welcome was as warm as ever and no visit can be made without a turn around their beloved garden.

Brian has been working in it and has been pruning back over-zealous shrubby growth.  The bamboos have been cut from the boundary with the field, and some local slaty slabs have been set into the bank beneath the stand of canes to form three steps.  These might serve as tiers for specimens in pots.

The small mature shrubbery to the right of the Zoology hut as you look down the garden has been cleared and there are newly transplanted plants in the little raised bed that remains.  This is a take-home message for me – I tend to think that once placed, plants should be left alone and that to move them is an admission of failure to get it right the first time.  I now see that in addition to the need to thin and divide plants, you sometimes have to resite them when their immediate gardenscape changes.

Today’s showpieces are the flowering Hellebores.  The inflorescences, in a range of pinks and reds, are clumps of flowering stems rising from the ground.  There is no foliage.  I ask about this and Rose tells me that the leaves were tired, beyond photosynthesis, and therefore removed.  The result is very stylish.  I am very fond of hellebores and love the way they seed and produce new colour forms.

Stella has been preparing our lunch, with the mother-provider care she invested when she used to take a packed lunch into the old Cornish Biological Records Unit for all the staff.  I remember the homemade saffron buns………….. mmmn.  Stella has moved a bed downstairs and into the library.  She has a comfy nook with shelves – that once held books which have now been rehomed – which are decked with delightfully themed curios and pictures.

When I leave I have a box of books in my boot.  These are the writings of and about Marcel Proust which belonged to Frank.  They are going home, to France, and will find a place in one of the bedrooms.  I will tackle one of the lighter biographies and see how I get on.  I’ve got an eclectic pile of reads waiting in the wings.

As it happens the day I visit Stella is my Book Group night and I am sad to miss it, although thanks to the e-world I dip into regularly, I pick up Diana’s feedback on the evening and our next reads, before I hit the hay at my sister’s house in Dorset later that night.

A couple of days later I get an email from another book groupie, Carol, in New Zealand, who is ecstatic about a book I recommended for her because we so often agree about the books we read and I just knew she’d love it.  She did and is mourning completion.  It is The Children’s Book by A S Byatt.  A beauty.

My day in Dorset is spent viewing houses, then I’m back home for the night before picking up the ferry back to France.

These are very cold days in St Vaast.  The wind blows from the east but it is dry and sunny.  Nearly three weeks of gardening possibilities await.  With enough layers I can work happily in the sunshine.  I start by pruning and training some of the climbers; the summer jasmine, honeysuckles.  Despite a good tidy up in the autumn there is a lot of dead growth at ground level to cut back.  It already looks better.

The new circular bed is planted with delphiniums and irises.  I boldly move plants and hope the weather will not curse me for it.  Some pots are emptied and contents planted out, others are moved to new positions.  Taking a leaf from Rose’s book, I take the leaves from my hellebores.  They stand clear and darkly mysterious under the climbing roses.  I need some lighter shades to plant with them.

Nick has dug and tided the vegetable garden and so we plant out broad bean plants brought from England near a sunny wall, with a framework for them to clamber.

When the light is good I take a few photographs of my winter blooms.  Greatest delight is the Daphne odora, in this it’s first flowering year.  The Sarcococca confusa is also flowering with its dark berries beneath.  This scented pair border the opening in the pergola onto the lawn.

Gardening sessions are punctuated by lunch breaks, reading, computing and other outdoor activities.  But that’s another story.

Five more Swedes and a Kilo of Parsnips

We managed a couple of days in England after Scotland before it was time to cross the Channel.  On the Monday Dan uploaded our Swede onto Vimeo.  Called The (Near) Thing he posted it on Facebook and also on Inshriach’s website, so we could all have a look.  It has some very funny moments and we all seem to have our favourite line, spoken by one of the young cast.  Out of the mouths of babes…… 🙂

Mum is joining us for the first five days in St Vaast so we picked her up from Weymouth and boarded the ‘Armorique’ which is replacing the ‘Barfleur’ on the Poole-Cherbourg crossing.  We had a smooth passage and the house was warm and welcoming.  We supped on soup and charcuterie before turning in for an early night.

Rain, rain, rain. Thursday was a grim, grey day and we didn’t venture far.  But on Friday we went in to Cherbourg and bought some plants including a house-warming yellow Cymbidium for Liz, and a pair of soft black leather moccasins for Mum.  Whilst we were out Nick made a most unwelcome discovery.  It seems we have dry rot under the bedroom windows on the first floor.  He drove a sample to our builder Alain Gourbesville who then promised to call at the house within the hour.  On Friday evening Nick went swimming with Francois, Arthur, Chloe.  Mum and I cosied up to the fire and ate a prawn risotto.

Mum’s highlight was supper chez Anne and Francois on Saturday evening.  She absolutely enters into the spirit of the evening.  I am amazed that she remembers a bit of the French she learnt at school over seventy years ago.  She has hardly ever needed to use it but the words are there.

Anne served us pumpkin soup, boeuf bourguignon with steamed potatoes and parsnips.  The latter are not easy to find in France, and swedes are impossible.  Called rutabaga they are a “forgotten vegetable” in France, having been eaten from the 18th century. More recently it was used as a food during World War II as an austerity vegetable, but now it is only fed to cattle.

Before we came over to France I had bought plenty of swedes and parsnips to share with Anne, who has developed a real fondness for them.  (I also brought over, on request, two small drums of baking powder which the French don’t have, and 2 Hartleys lemon jellies).   We took a raspberry and apple crumble over for dessert.

Sunday was Mum’s last day with us this time.  We ate a classic French lunch in a restaurant on the north coast, Au Bouquet de Cosqueville.   In the calm, understated dining room we sat our table, lone English, alongside the other customers.  Three hours later, certainly replete, we drove home and spent a quiet afternoon.

Mum and I recrossed the Channel late Monday afternoon.  In the morning Nick and I had trooped to the offices of our insurance company to register our dry rot problem so that we may be eligible for a claim.  Fingers crossed.  It was twenty minutes short of midnight when I delivered my mother to a warm welcome at Chestnuts.  I did not tarry because I had to get to my bed for the night.  A thirty minute journey found me driving up the windy lane to Paul and Viv’s house at Morecombelake.  I tumbled into the bed in Hilary’s room and slept.

Parting Shots

So its fare thee well Inshriach House and all its inhabitants.  A late afternoon walk in the sun and snow shows the landscape at its tranquil best with the tracks and footprints which mark our week in its thrall.

Sun shining down into the garden.

Sun  on the mountains behind Inshriach House, the Bothy, the Henhouse

Lola really wants to go home now…

A last look back.

It’s time to Wrap it Up

It’s Friday which means they are frying tonight in Aviemore.  After a day spent variously filming and walking we send out for F and C all round.  Except the two eldest boys who go for battered sausages.  No deep-fried Mars Bars are requested, fortunately 🙂

The joys of fish and chips are enduring.  It’s possibly Lola’s favourite, she eats this after her swimming lesson every Sunday.  She has recently achieved a length of the swimming pool on her back,  aged 4.

Fish and chips will always be associated in my mind with visits to my paternal grandmother who lived at Portsmouth.  She, one of 10 children, the eldest with 8 brothers and a sister.  All those great uncles told such stories of childhood mischief, often scrumping was involved.  Do children still scrump??  One of my uncles would take me to see the lights in the famous Southsea Rock Garden or to the funfair on the sea front: pink candyfloss and terrifying rides on the Wild Mouse …………….which the internet tells me is still there.  My grandmother was great on spontanaeity and rather permissive, she allowed me to dress up in her clothes…………. and go to the corner shop in them.

On Saturday more Lights will be melting away, meanwhile the snow still lies on the ground, crisp and white, preserved by the very low temperatures, especially at night.  First we need to get the Cholseys to Aviemore to catch their 11.30 train.  Armed with a fat picnic, their 3 laptops with DVDs, and a Nintendo DS which Sam seems pretty devoted to, they pile into 2 cars and are delivered to their waiting train.  It will take them 7 hours to reach their London mainline station and another 3 to get to their door in Oxfordshire.

Shortly after, the Sunburys are on their way.  They will break their journey twice to give Ted a good run around and do some shopping.

So it’s Nick, Dan, Lola and me to rattle around the mansion for the rest of the day.  Nick spends most of it in the farmyard working on Petal the Land Rover with Walter.  Dan has started to edit his sequences and needs to can one or two more.  One involves Nick standing unseen below the crest of a hill and throwing up shovels of snow to simulate explosions.

And there are a couple of scenes with dialogue which Lola will deliver, including the final line.  When she is not throwing sticks of dynamite made from empty loo rolls covered in red paper, or plodding through the snow with an improvised flame thrower strapped to her back, we sit at the kitchen table and colour fairies and princesses all shades of pink, and make waterlilies with the polystyrene chip containers.  She has undivided attention and intends to make the most of it.

As we have leftovers from Thursday’s dinner we invite Lucy, Walter and Malcolm Handoll (who has come from Orkney to run a one-day course in survival and bushcraft skills at Inshriach) to supper.  Malcolm and I talk shells in archaeology and he describes some of the many uses to which one can put a limpet shell.  For example, Malcolm tells me, you can transport an ember cupped in two shells by inverting the shells periodically when the lower one gets too hot to handle.  Is this how the Neolithic community might have transferred fire from site to site?

When sensible people facing long journeys on the morrow are thinking of going to bed, Dan and Walter opt to go to the pub.  The trip turns into a lock-in.  At 5.30 a noise in the house wakes me.   I lay there for a while then think I’ll just pad along the gallery to check on Lola, who chose to sleep in the huge fourposter of the master bedroom.  But there is no sign of her father.  I check all the bedrooms and he is definitely not in the house.  With a sense of rising panic (it is minus 14, there are ditches and the lanes are treacherous) I phone Dan’s mobile but he does not answer.  Thankfully Walter does answer when I ring his and I learn they are both in the bothy about to settle down for a session of their VHSVideo club.  Dan will be back soon…………….

Soon drifts on and in the end Nick has to fetch our lad, who then sleeps in the car, virtually all the way home to Hackney.   He wakes up intermittently to post a Tweet courtesy of my Orange dongle.  Lola is an absolutely brilliant passenger.  We stop at one of the watering holes Dan and I used to use on journeys to and from Edinburgh when he was up there reading English, and Lola orders her usual.  Dan tells Lola that there is a kind of very large school in this big city,  to which he and Mummy went and met each other.  “What do you think we did at that big school, Lola?”  “Colouring?” asks Lola hopefully.  “Well yes, they called that Geography”.

Nick and I eventually fall indoors at midnight, 14 hours after we left Inshriach.  We have already put our marker down for 2011.