A year ago icy north winds were lashing our beaches on the eastern Cotentin. Nick and I, wrapped up in many layers, walked those shores and found quite a few sacks of oysters, wrenched from the trestles in the local oyster parks. Some of the plastic net sacks had ripped and spilled their contents, which the sea scattered along the driftlines. One or two sacks were undamaged with live oysters inside. These were treasure trove. We ate our fill and froze yet more.
I also found a moribund ormer (abalone) which caused excitement and speculation in equal measure. This year, on the occasion of an exceptional low tide, I resolved to search neighbouring rocky coast to look for living ormers in their rocky habitat on the shore.
I planned to search the rock outcrop around Gatteville lighthouse at low water. But after chatting with Francois Nick told me about another bit of shore, known by a patient, where ormers were being found by locals. So we drove to the site, near a windmill and caravan park. There were a few people making their way to the lower shore when we arrived with an hour to go before low tide.
When you arrive at a rocky shore where the receding tide reveals ever more potential habitat, and the area and shape of the shore are ‘morphing’ before your very eyes, the trick is to pick the right spot. On many shores some areas are more productive than others and shelter is often a strong factor. Nick and I selected our route across the rocks and sand and started rolling rocks.
It was interesting to watch searching techniques employed by others in our vicinity. Nick and I were togged in waterproof neoprene chest waders but others appeared to have full dry suits and they could wade out to waist or chest height then grope around under the water, finding the largest boulders they could roll. I assume they then felt and peered through the water to look for the ormers. Adult ormers are large enough to see, unlike many molluscs which inhabit the undersides of rocks on a shore.
When I am working on a shore, I wish I was bold enough to go and peer quite blatently into my fellow collectors’ receptacles. Pecheurs a pied often use open wicker or wire baskets, and it wouldn’t be difficult, but I rarely have the nerve. I might steal a glance as I casually walk past a busy fisher but that is far as it goes. So Nick and I have no idea how many ormers, or other trophies such as brown crabs or lobsters were found that afternoon.
Nick had wandered away to a bit of shore rather distant from the shallow lagoon I was favouring. In the end he came back to work with me and it was cooperation that won through. We were standing in a sheltered low point on the rock platform when I announced the place looked possible, likely even, with its stable but rollable boulders. Nick turned a rock over and said “Like this?” A sizeable adult on the underside was the unmistakeable proof that ormers do extend onto the eastern coasts of the Cotentin.
We continued to search until time (I needed time to get ready for my homeward crossing later in the evening) and tide, brought our search to an end. One specimen is good enough for a record in biological recording, so the second specimen Nick spotted in a crevice near the top of the shore was a bonus. We managed to pry it out of its niche. I chilled both ormers in the fridge back home until it was time to catch my ferry for England. They travelled safely in my cabin bag and were deposited in the fridge at Winterborne. Later that day I prepared them for the pot.
You remove the ormers from the shell using a desert spoon to release the muscle from the shell. Then you cut away all viscera until you have a white oval piece of meat with a moss green-coloured border. This is a coating of algae which you remove with a small stiff brush. Then you take a wooden tenderizing mallet and beat the meat until its surface area has doubled. I then shave slivers off the flesh and sizzle them in a pan with olive oil, chopped shallot, ginger and a touch of chilli. Or none of the above, just butter, garlic and parsley. They don’t take long to cook and can then be stirred into a risotto or cooked pasta with a light sauce – what could be more appropriate than the pasta shells known as Conchiglione?