We crossed to France on Sunday afternoon, enjoying the sparsely populated, spacious accommodation offered by one of Brittany Ferries’ largest ships. At this time of year you can only cross the Channel on the cruise ferries, the faster catamarans do not run in sea states any more agitated than a Force 6, and late autumn and winter weather conditions are seldom favourable for these smaller vessels. Sitting up in the restaurant on Deck 8 of the Mont St Michel, enjoying a leisurely dinner, you can look down on a very restless sea and feel buffered from, rather than buffeted by, the serious white horses.
The reduced schedule offered by Brittany Ferries means we often have to cross from Portsmouth to Caen and this necessitates a longer drive to the house. We get indoors at about 10.30 p.m. and find a dish of cooked sea snails kindly left by Daniel. We love whelks and eat some at lunch-time on successive days and they are delicious.
By coincidence I find myself listening to Sheila Dillon on The Food Programme one lunch-time. She is investigating the appeal of shellfish – “bivalves and molluscs” – from the point of view of taste and sustainability and asks why we don’t eat them more in Britain. Actually she means bivalves and gastropods – they are both molluscs :)….
She finds out what has happened to the marine environment in Lyme Bay since a scallop dredging ban was introduced in part of it and about the implications of a proposed mussel farm there. She discovers why whelk fishing is a big export industry with low environmental impact and oysters are ecologically friendly. Chef Mark Hix shows what can be done with the lesser used varieties like whelks and razor clams.
I’m not sure how one gets over the reluctance many have to eating the less attractive mollusc species. Scallops, dainty clams, even oysters are gradually finding favour with a wider public. But whelks do look, frankly, quite unpleasant when you have twirled them out of their shells with a hefty pin, and a variety of terminology is used to describe their appearance – vocabulary of a nasal nature!!
But we heard on the programme that the whelk fishery is commercially more successful than our cod fishery – and we export nearly all our whelks, most of them are lapped up by the Japanese. One way forward is to use the whelk meat as an accompanying protein. Fancy Whelk and Smoked Haddock Fricassee with Celeriac Chips anyone? Or how about Whelks with Pernod Sauce. But first find out how to cook the humble sea snail itself.
Despite the advice you will find on the web (10-15 minutes cooking time) I have it on good authority from Daniel, our seasoned Norman fisherman neighbour, that they need slow cooking for about 40 minutes. Having washed the whelks in several changes of water and let them soak for an hour or so, you place them in a pan of water well-salted and bring them slowly to the boil. You also shake in a generous helping of pepper which imparts a wonderful flavour to the whelk meat. Whelks that cross our threshold never make it to more sophisticated dishes. We eat them au naturel with home-made mayonnaise.
Which brings me to our fun with word play. Daniel taught Nick how to make mayonnaise but Nick sometimes muddles the ingredients. After being shown how to, the first batch Nick turned out single-handed was miraculous in that he made a passable mayonnaise with the white of the egg, rather than the yolk! The next occasion he added far too much mustard. This time he made the mayonnaise with a whole egg (the first laid by Anne’s Christmas present hen as it turned out) and asked me to taste it. “It’s a bit bland”, I said, “how much mustard did you add”. “Oops I forgot the mustard!!”
When we recounted this tale to Francois later it caused much merriment and when he inspected the contents of the bowl he ventured the opinion that it looked more like ‘creme anglaise’. This is French for custard. “Yes”, I said “it’s mustard custard”.
At long last we see light at the end of our fungal tunnel. The principle reason for our short trip is to attend the all-important site meeting at our house. We need to hear that the works necessary and costs for dry rot treatment have been agreed and how they will be shared by the two insurance companies involved. A start date would be the proverbial icing. The meeting is very successful – after 2 hours in rather technical French which, all credit to him, Nick follows and understands, we have the funding agreed and a possible start envisaged for the beginning of March.
During our few days here we have put a sofa back in front of the fire which we keep burning for the duration, and we spend time on gardening duties. There are colourful treasures to be found once weeds are yanked out, and Nick makes 8 new boxes of compost.