Violets and Purples

In June 2016 Nick and I were invited to stay with some friends on their boat in the south of France.  They keep their boat in the marina at Frejus, just by St Raphael which is in the heart of the French Riviera.  The aim during the three weeks we were with them was to make a crossing to Corsica and maybe Elba.  Unfortunately, first a blast from the Mistral and then a series of mechanical upsets, delayed our departure to the point that the envisaged cruise would not be possible within the window of opportunity available to us.  So we contented ourselves with coastal sailing and during those three weeks we gained a good flavour of the resorts strung out along the coast.  Names such as St Tropez, Cannes, Nice, Villefranche-sur-mer, Cap Ferrat became reality, as we plied our passage to the west and east of our resident port.  These coastal settlements looked pretty densely populated to me and I was quite content to view from afar.

One morning our host announced that there would be a market, strung out along the promenade at Frejus.  With every kind of stall that can be imagined we viewed the goods and shopped for supplies.  Before we set off together however, Francois slipped out early to visit one particular stall which sells fish and seafood.  He was in search of ‘Violets’.  This was evidently a vernacular name for a particular ‘fruit de mer’ and when he described them to me I could not even imagine to which phylum they belonged.  When he returned with his booty Francois showed us a plastic bag containing what I took to be small irregular rocks with assorted encrustations and frondose attachments.  Well, ‘fin bref’, as the French say, the dozen individuals turned out to be sea squirts, or ascidians.  When I eventually ran the species down it turns out that the so-called ‘violets’ (which are not violet at all), or sea figs as they are sometimes called, were Microcosmos sabatieri.  They are eaten in various parts of the world including China, Japan, Korea and in countries bordering the north coasts of the Mediterranean.  Quick reference to Wikipedia tells you that they are eaten raw, often with a sharp condiment such as lemon juice or shallot vinegar and have a slight taste of iodine.  You simply cut through the stout fleshy tunic to expose the sulphur yellow soft parts, loosen them from their point of attachment and chuck them back, as you mght slurp an oyster.  Their texture and flavour are distinctly marine, and they are not dissimilar to oysters but the taste is stronger.

Ah, I hear some say.  But they aren’t molluscs are they?  No, but the ‘Purples’ Francois bought on the same foray most certainly were.  The second plastic bag was opened to reveal some twenty Murex shells.  Smaller than Buccinum whelks and larger than Ocenebra or Nucella shells the species that was being sold locally, and which I was staring at, was Hexaplex trunculusNow I have written a bit about certain muricid species, i.e. those that harbour the hypobranchial gland whose secretions are capable of producing purple dye, in the context of Tyrian purple production.  There are sources that document the use of Nucella lapillus and Stramonita haemastoma as a foodstuff but I had not come across references to Hexaplex as a comestible.  To cook them a litre of water was drawn and 30g of salt was added to replicate, more or less, seawater.  A good glug of oil and some hefty shakes of ground pepper were added.  The whelks were rinsed and then boiled for 10 minutes after which one was tested for easy removal of the body.  Over-cooking toughens the flesh.  All marine snails are tricky to extract from the shells.  Bits get left behind.  But I managed to find enough meat to dip into freshly-made mayonnaise.  I’m used to eating whelks and the Murex were similar but with a more pronounced flavour.  At the end of the meal I noticed that the aperture exteriors of some of the shells had picked up some purple staining.  I must confess that I rushed to a mirror to see if my tongue had stained blue.  My tongue was unscathed.

Postscript:  Slightly off the point but molluscan nevertheless I recently received a French friend and her 5-year old grandson for a short stay in Dorset.  During the course of the visit Noe spotted my microscope and asked to investigate it.  We found a moment and I showed him a multi-celled slide with an assortment of mounted rissoids.  Whilst at the microscope I glanced at a slide which contains a specimen of Graphis albida.   This minute and exquisitely sculptured shell is a marvel.  You could hardly see it in the slide.  I put it under the ‘scope and showed Anne.  Inevitably Noe wanted to see it too.  I re-placed him at the microscope, helped adjust the eye-pieces and racked up and down, asking him to tell me when the image was clear.  I have never been confident that such young children can give the right call on this.  When he told me he could see the specimen I asked him what it looked like.  I hope he would tell me he was looking at a shell. Instead he told me that it looked like the ‘horn of a unicorn’.  No doubt about that!