Cycling back from la Boulangerie on my ancient bicycle with 4 baguettes sticking out of the basket and the sound of seagulls (I love their mewing) I know for certain that I am holiday.  The Cholsey gang are back at the house on the uphill climb to a state of preparedness for a day at the beach!  We had a great first full day yesterday with a late afternoon trip to a local beach where, on a rising tide, we went for a swim.  Sam, Joel and Amelie are now working their way up through swimming lessons and were all game for a dip.

For some reason, when we have had a good swim in our north Atlantic waters, we all say that it was lovely, the water was really warm.  Well, some of us bravehearts do 🙂  Actually the sea in the English Channel, and all round the British Isles is shockingly cold when you first immerse.  As I wade out I always think, this is going to be the one time when I never actually ‘warm up’ and enjoy the sea.  But in very few minutes, with one’s circulation working over-overtime, a great sense of therapeutic well-being overtakes and the wavelets work their magic.  The children bob up and down, test out their strokes, and Joel speaks for us all when he says “The Sea Rocks

So they’ve all gone to another beach today to chase the tide down and I’m enjoying another well-being moment which is roasting a large, free-range chicken from our neighbour.  Sam and Amelie came with me to order it and were introduced to her ‘peep’ of chickens.  (This is the official collective noun, apparently..)  And were allowed to hold a particularly docile young hen.

I’ve now got about 4 hours before the peep of Cholseys reappears so better get on…….

Life is a bit more leisurely

By Tuesday the pace of life is slowing down, thankfully. I complete the shell report and email it to my contact in Cornwall. I get an email back a bit later acknowledging this and mentioning another archaeological project which is currently seeking funding which will entail excavations on the seabed and intertidal zone around Scilly. If it does ahead I will be involved in the marine mollusc analysis which will be particularly rewarding as I already know the coasts around Scilly as shell-collecting havens.

The weather is beautiful: sunny, warm and windless so I can spend much of the day in the garden. Finally, a week after arrival, I made a start on weeding, starting in the top right corner where the giant Allium schubertii are growing up through roses. It is a ‘tumbleweed’, native to the Eastern Mediterranean, with a flower head which may be up to 45 cm in diameter. The longer flower stems forming the head are often sterile, the shorter ones fertile, and the whole rolls in the wind, eventually scattering the seed over a wide area. The irregular nature of the stiffened flower pedicels gives a bursting firework like effect, in colours of purple, violet and pink in June. The colours fade as the seed head dries but the heads are brilliant for flower arrangements, I have a few from other years in a large glass goldfish bowl.

I see that the Delphiniums have been munched to pieces by slugs. I’ll have to do something about that before the end of the day. Working my way down the flower bed there are other heavily grazed casualties and there are dead stems and plants to remove. After a couple of hours the stretch I have worked is transformed.

At the supermarket I needed to pick up something for supper and settled for some whelks and cooked crab which we could eat with bread, mayonnaise and a salad, it will be very simple. I called in at the garden centre to buy some repotting compost and some all purpose compost too. I found a suitable pot to move the parlour palm into. All day Nick has been painting the workshop.

With a simple supper planned there is time for a session on the treadmill which I can now ‘enjoy’ with a film. Francois’ son has loaded hundreds of films onto a little black box from which I can make my selection. They are all in French and the first one I chose was dubbed. Even with the volume up to its maximum to counteract the noise of the treadmill it is an uphill struggle to understand the dialogue in this very atmospheric and rather gruesome thriller. But the time flies and before I know it I have done 40 minutes. Just time for a shower then supper. All this in our private ‘suite’! Pictures below will enable those who have visited the house to see what we have done………. viz. we have put in a plain white door which matches the pre-existing cupboard in our bedroom which is an original house feature and hey presto we step into the ‘ new cupboard’ C S Lewis style!

Later, in the evening Nick went over the road for a game of darts with Daniel, I slumped in front of our French TV and watched several episodes of CSI Miami, thankfully in English in my brain-dead state, back to back.

Wednesday and another lovely day so the garden’s the place for me. See gallery above. I round up 50 sluggish pests and dispose of them humanely. I’ve brought over all the seed packets I could find in Godalming, some rather mildewed where they have been rained on in the greenhouse. I’m going to sow some of everything as part of this drive Nick and I have to use everything up and start again, the larder, the freezer, cleaning materials, toiletries etc etc. If we weren’t too concerned about fresh fruit and veg we could live off our supplies for weeks……….. Today I have set seed for Larkspur, Poppies, Cleome, Cowslips, Sunflowers, Sweet Basil, Statice, Helichrysums.

At the end of the day there’s time for another session on the treadmill before we eat some of the massive sea bass which I have defrosted and poached in white wine and courtbouillon vegetables in the fish kettle. A fish this size is more appropriate as a feast for several diners. But the fish has languished over long in the freezer in Godalming. It was a wise decision to cook it. We ate some and it was tasty enough but the texture had suffered. Good to mix with other fish though, in fish pies, cakes.

Just time to blog up before I again fall asleep in front of the TV……….. Tomorrow it will be different!

Wot no fish?

So Nick and co went fishing on a gift of a day. As Nick remarked when he looked down into the otherwise murky Marina waters, “it is gin-clear”! They fished for six hours and came home with a small pollack and a few whiting. Well that’s better than nothing. Arriving back at 3.30 or thereabouts they poured themselves “a petit whisky” and retired to the pool table, only to be plucked from their game 15 minutes in by Daniel over the road who came to fetch them to join the rest of the ‘team’ watching England play France, before they all returned to Paris. It was a good day to be a Rosbif amongst Frogs!!

By this stage I was on countdown to supper time, Daniel, Anne and Francois due to arrive about 8. Francois arrived early to help Nick troubleshoot some problems setting up the hard drive which has hundreds of films on it in the gym.

I cooked a Persian lamb dish which Rosemary Payne cooked for us a week ago when we drove to their home just outside Portsmouth for supper and some shell talk with Bas. I also cooked the Marmalade Bread and Butter Pudding she had given us. Not a good idea to experiment on guests but it seemed to work ok, although it all took much longer than I bargained and the kitchen looked like a bomb-site after. I even cooked some of the whiting fillets caught earlier as slivers coated in batter. As a family we have always called these goujons but Anne tells me they are ‘beignets’ and my dictionary tells me this is French for ‘fritters’ so I like that……….. Fun evening, such delightful neighbours and friends.

Monday and I really must settle down to draw up the assessment of some archeaological marine shell from a Middle Age castle at Restormel in Cornwall. I have promised this for mid-March. It is a day’s work but I only get to start it in the evening. The morning is taken up with examining a cobble Nick hooked whilst fishing. He brings these little bits of seabed back to me so I can check them out for their marine life. They often have pretty seaslugs on them, not the slimy horrors we find on land (and not everyone thinks they are horrible either) but exquisite and colourful animals which tend to feed on a range of other marine invertebrates, many of these carrying toxins which the slugs can take on board for their own use – makes them poisonous to eat and therefore protects them in turn from predation.

Check out Jim Andersons Scottish Nudibranchs website (see link) and view his gallery.

The phone rings and whoops, there is Gerard, an octogenarian who owns the boat opposite Nick’s and who loves to go fishing with Nick, because Nick has know-how. Does Nick want to go out to play? Yes please.

After my lunch I wrote some cards then drove up to Marie-Christine to take her up on her invitation to a session in their hot tub. The afternoon is warm and the tub is sited in a sun-trap. We get in and it feels like a too hot bath. We struggle for 15 minutes then have to get out and it is then I notice the temperature is 40.5 degrees and that I look like a lobster! It seems those 4 naughty lads from Saturday night jacked up the heat.

Back at the house Nick has just returned with No Fish. This is unusual as March is the month for pollack and is the basis for the apparent false pretence under which Nick persuaded me to sign up for 4 weeks in St V! No matter, we have some tea and a chunk of Marmalade pudding and cream and I finally get round to tackling the oyster shell assessment.

Two days of feasting!

Latish on Thursday, just as Nick and I were thinking about bringing the day to a close, there was a ring at the front door and in walked Daniel with 3 companions. These were Alain who runs his engineering firm on the outskirts of Paris and owns the farm Daniel is helping him to restore/renovate and 2 other friends. Inevitably they were invited to a ‘petit whisky’ and duly found their way upstairs. Again I went to bed with my book and the sounds of much guffawing and exultation over the pool table. I need to learn the French word for rowdy!

We were duly invited to eat at the farm on Friday evening. Nick spent the day there helping to fell a large sycamore which is just in the wrong place. I pottered around at the house, did some gardening, dealt with some computer stuff. By now, at the farm, the numbers of visitors was growing so later, when Nick, Daniel and I tipped up for our meal at 8 we were greeted by 6 Frenchmen, all fellow Parisians: a retired banker, a gendarme and various entrepreneurs. Star of the evening was Jean-Pierre of whom Daniel had said “Il est un vedette”, which means just that… a celebrity, a character. During the meal he held court whilst recounting his various encounters with ‘les flics’ (the cops) over serial motoring offences.

The meal was a team effort with an oyster-shucking duo in the kitchen whilst others prepared ribs of beef to be cooked on the open fire. We started with a Piedmontaise salad (a potato salad with chopped salami, gherkins etc) followed by oysters, then the beef with chips. You had to eat the meat quickly…………. it had been shown the fire, acquired a pale grey exterior at the thought of being cooked but was otherwise raw and rather cool! But once you have started eating meat less than well done it is downhill from there to the point you are indulging in raw carnivory! The razor clams we had contributed to this feast had been put on the fire and were brought to the table to pick at. Then it was cheese, apple tart with rhubarb jam, coffee, Armagnac, Calvados……….. At some point in the evening Nick had issued an invitation to fishing, which Patrick and Georgio accepted. They will join Francois who is also counting on some fishing on Sunday. All in all it was a supremely convivial evening.

On Saturday it is market day in St Vaast and you don’t want to be tipping up too late in the morning. In addition to fruit and veg stalls there are merchants offering cheese, charcuterie, honey and associated products, free range and cooked meats, shellfish, bread, china/glass/cutlery, cookware, clothing, trinkets, toys and a wonderful haberdashery stall which is the flap down side of a large lorry selling every kind of sewing and knitting requirement. Local people come and sell their surplus produce and occasionally you will see a couple of children sitting beside a basket of kittens or puppies which need a home.

I bought a large quantity of vegetables for very few Euros, a few pansies for my pots and some ingredients for the Persian lamb dish I will be cooking on Sunday evening for guests. Things like dried fruit, candied peel and more unusual foodstuffs can be bought in Maison Gosselin which is like a mini Fortnum’s and very beautifully turned out inside. Nick continued to paint the workshop space below the new bathroom and gym, I made some vegetable soup for lunch. Whilst Nick tinkered with the screen and associated hardware set-up in the gym, I napped. We were due to go out for a meal with Patrick and Marie Christine and potentially this would be a long evening.

Arriving at 8.30 we found Christine and her daughter Annabelle still waiting for Patrick to shoo away his last customers in the bar and shut up. It was an hour before he arrived with a bottle of fizz which we drank with appetisers prepared by Annabelle. She is an excellent and inventive cook and for an entree served a wonderful pot of fish with assorted seafood cooked in a creamy sauce, this then having been put in a stoneware pot and then sealed with a pastry lid to be baked in the oven for 20 minutes. To follow a preheated pierrade was brought to the table and plugged into an electric socket. This is a hot plate on which you can cook meat or fish. Slivers of (yet more!) raw beef were brought to the table and we were invited to place the meat on the hot plate, turning and cooking it to preference. Naturally we were brought a basket of chips and some assorted pots of sauces for the meat. A lamb’s lettuce salad was also offered.

Nick and I often wonder who eats the vegetable bounty we see displayed on market stalls and in supermarkets. We drive past fields and fields of leeks, brassicas ……all about. We rarely see any of it during a traditional French meal. In restaurants you might get a small souffle dish-sized confection of vegetable julienne served with your main course. To follow, there were cheeses and an open apple turnover in filo pastry with a chocolate fondant middle. The French do love their puds. Towards the end of the evening Annabelle’s boyfriend Roman turned up with 3 friends, hotfoot from their basket-ball match in Cherbourg. Giants all, they retired to the hot tub outside whilst Annabelle migrated between us and the lads. Although invited to stay, in the end the lads went on their way, leaving we four oldies chatting over the trials, tribulations and funding implications of parents of young adults as they start to establish themselves in the wider world as self-funding individuals.

Patrick has a liking for 50s and 60s rock and roll stuff so this was fetched up on YouTube and played loudly. As it happens Nick rather likes this vintage too and proceeded to give us a one-man karaoke session whilst I cringed. We then looked up other stuff, Abba, Status Quo, Dire Strait which was played at high volume. Men seem to lose their hearing when they drink a lot!! Eventually we had to tear ourselves away. It was 2.00 a.m. before I put my light out.

Sunday dawned and was glorious. Nick prepared his fishing tackle, downed a poached egg and sallied forth once Patrick, Georgio and Francois were assembled. Let’s hope they all catch some fine fish….

Two afternoons on the shore – Clams galore!

 I left my reader (I hope to acquire more!) as Nick and I were setting forth on a Peche a Pied experience.  Literally this means Fishing on Foot which is a good description of what you do, roaming over a shore, picking up bits and bobs of marine life that are edible to the best of your knowledge.  The shore we went to on Wednesday is at the Pointe de Saire and is an exposed headland north of St Vaast.  There is a tidal race round the point itself which makes it a rather inhospitable environment for a lot of marine invertebrates.  Worms however do very well and Nick spent a profitable hour digging the sands at the edge of the outflowing river channel and bagging himself a selection of juicy ones to use as bait when he goes fishing on Sunday.  He’ll use them to fish from the seabed, some flatfish would be nice………….  The tide went out a very long way as the pictures attest.  The bay empties out completely and you can walk across to Ile de Tatihou over an expanse of sand flats or over the causeway through the oyster park which is closer to town.  I collected a bag of shell drift which looked interesting and I didn’t find much in the way of ingredients for a risotto or pasta dish whilst Nick was doing his digging but we did spy a shore further north on which we could see figures moving about so resolved to investigate that shore the following day.

In the morning Nick started painting the garage interior now the building works are complete.  He is going to turn it into a nice workshop.  I’ll get the former workshop behind it as a lab.   In the meantime shell-sorting activities happen at the end of the kitchen table and I worked through my sample of shellsand, finding a few small treasures.  After lunch I did some computer stuff then at just after 4 we left the house to go to the shore by Tour Dranguet just out of the village of Jonville.  It is a lovely mixed shore of sands, gravels, rock outcrops, lagoons and pools.  The shell life is very varied and we spent a very happy couple of hours plodding through the shallows picking up and raking for bivalves and admiring the colourful life colonising the undersides of rocks and overhangs.  I found several small cowries in amongst the sponges and lots of painted top shells which I think are two of Britain’s most attractive shells to find on the shore.  There were quite a few elderly French men digging with their trident-like forks for razor clams.  They seem to ignore all the other bivalves and just focus on their quarry.  We soon had more than enough for one sitting of risotto.  In my eagerness I’d managed to get my welly interiors wet so was very happy to remove these and empty them when we got back.  Washing and sorting our haul took a bit of time and during food preparation time there was a ring at the door.  It was the razor clam lady who goes round door to door selling her surplus for 8 Euros a kilo from her bicycle basket.  Christine says we should not pay more than 5 Euros but I think she is winding us up!  Anyhow notwithstanding we are groaning with shellfish to cook we bought a kilo as they will keep till tomorrow and they are absolutely delicious grilled with butter and garlic (like most things!) and we want the  razor clam lady to keep up her deliveries.  It is only when the tides are exceptionally low that there is an abundant harvest, twice a year for a couple days only.

So I made the risotto and steamed a third of the clams which I stirred into the rice for a few minutes.  We ate this with another improvised dish as an accompaniment – slow-cooked mixed beans with coriander and ginger.  Half way through our meal Anne the Doc’s wife popped in to deliver some of the eggs they had been given, gift of a grateful patient!  Francois says if he is offered just one, he just cracks it open and swallows it on the spot!

We have had two wonderful days on the shore and it is a good while since I visited such a lovely shore as today’s.  This  brings our low-tiding to an end until two week’s time when some Conchological Society friends come out to spend a few days shelling.  And now I must go and steam the rest of the clams to freeze.

New Beginnings

After a seemingly unbreakable addiction to pen and paper in matters of journal-keeping I have been weaned off, finally, swayed by the pressures of time and expedience (and the cost of colour cartridges for my printer).  The chunky books, bulging with photos, will now be consigned to shelves and I will be able to fly over the keyboard, tapping out my words as they pop into my head.  We arrived in St Vaast yesterday afternoon having previously left our French home in winter (mid-February) and we find spring is in evidence with the second blooming of daffs planted by our friend Andrew in the autumn of 2007.  We unpacked the car, brim-full as usual, this time with pots and plants and the remaining two dining chairs which join their fellows and our big round table.  We explored our new mini-gym and bathroom complex, finished at last after over-running its schedule.  It was worth the wait.  The house is now complete.  I had a session on the treadmill before I went to bed (awake at 3.30 a.m. yesterday and luckily unable to sleep again as I got up and then went flat out preparing for the off at 6 a.m.), Nick preferring to play pool with Daniel.  I could hear them above me, with the juke box playing Edith Piaf, laughing like schoolboys.  Last night it was Daniel’s turn to “marcher sur l’eau” but as players they are evenly balanced.  Today Nick and I have shopped, had a couple of drinks in the Bar and are now about to go out for a walk across the sand flats to check out the Peche a Pied activities on this very low spring (Equinoctial) tide.  More anon
PS  As I remarked to CJ, I can always print my blog off from time to time!!!