Birthday

It was with pleasure and a sense of something different, new, momentous that I woke up on the morning of 3rd February, 70 years after I was born.  I had been promised a special breakfast by my lovely spouse; scrambled egg and smoked salmon, with bubbly.  I opened my cards and some gifts with a morning cup of tea, and was very struck by a sense of occasion.

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I have sailed through my 40th, 50th, 60th with a shrug of the shoulder and the thought that numerically I might be shifting along the timescale but in life I am still feeling up to the requirements of life.  Seventy is different if only because the perception of others is that one is, in fact, elderly!!

But not me.  I have a day, a weekend ahead of me in which I will be constantly surprised.  This is no small achievement on the part of Nick who has, in truth, enjoyed a lifetime of surprises for others and himself but has been rarely if ever involved in the planning of these events. In fact some of the things that unfold over the weekend are a surprise unto himself because our inimitable English weather has played a joker and some of Nick’s ideas were weather-dependent.  So I am told that I need to be ready for a 4p.m. departure with nothing much in the way of luggage.

In the three days prior to my Big Day I have enjoyed convivial occasions with friends and my sisters.  On the 31st Nick and I go to the village pub for supper with Eamonn and Cybs.  We have had a good meal and are taking a nightcap in the bar when in troop my Bridge ladies.  With some guilt I receive cards and a gift from them – I have not played this year for a number of piffling reasons.  On the spur of the moment Cybs asks if I will play the following week.  In a moment of weakness I say I will……..

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On the 1st Nick and I drive to Ringwood to join up with friends who go back a long way.  In Nick’s case the two guys date back to early schooldays, the very early 50s.  We all went to each other’s weddings.  Thus Mike, Stuart, Carolyn and Angela meet up with us for lunch.

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The following evening my sisters have invited us to Dorchester for a curry at the Rajpoot.  I receive my octopus glass bowl officially.  The curry was wonderful.

So at 4 we leave the house and turn in the opposite direction to that which I had imagined.  As it happens I do have the right destination in my mind, but Nick is clearly aiming to throw me off the scent.  We arrive in Maiden Newton, at the home of dear Maddy and Andrew.  We drink some champagne, we walk round the corner to Le Petit Canard.  Surprise no. 2.  We dine, very deliciously, a quatre.


 

The following morning the weather was still playing up but it became clear that a flight was on the cards.  Before that however, Andrew took me for a spell of offroading up on the land around the Hardy Monument.  At one point I notice that there was a single deer standing on the horizon.

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After a bit of lunch provided by Maddy I was whisked off to Bournemouth Airport for a rendez vous with our pilot Brad Element and his small aircraft.  We flew along the south coast of Dorset as far as Weymouth and back.  It was lovely to see so many familiar landmarks from the air.

Asked if we planned a celebration in the evening I said no, we would be having a quiet restful evening at home.  We drove back to The Old Workshop, we walked in the front door and I suggested Nick light the fire and I would make a pot of tea.  I opened the kitchen door ……….

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Hawkchurch Days

Leaving Cornwall I have another visit to pay before I return to Dorset.  My sister is to have a small procedure for which I can be a helpful driver and overnight companion. Her home nestles in a lovely little corner on the east side of Devon.  She is a very private person and her home is a sanctuary upon which I do not encroach with my camera.  She is a fabulous needlewoman , a talented watercolourist and an extremely knowledgeable mycologist.  She is probably as near as dammit a national expert although she would deny this to be the case.  Back in the autumn she took me for a walk along her  special lane and we saw chanterelles.  She crops her small supply from time to time.  Amazingly there are still plenty tucked into the bank but she says they will be water-logged and not worth collecting 😦  They make an attractive sight all the same.

Before I head for home she takes me to a farm shop nearby.  Miller’s Farm Shop  is an Aladdin’s Cave of wonderful food.  Some of the vegetables are grown on the farm, the rest are provided by local suppliers passionate about good quality food. Fresh fruit and vegetables are locally sourced and colourful arrays of seasonal plants are available. You can find Lyme Bay fresh fish, beef, pork and lamb from local farms, local milk and cream, cider from Lyme Bay Winery and Perry’s Cider Mill and sample a variety of local cheeses. Malcolm and Angela travel to France once a week to scour markets in different regions for quality produce for the shop.

On top of all this they have a seductive section where they sell artefacts with a marine theme.  Here we spy a range of ornamental table glassware where scallop shells and octopus form the dominant design.  There are also sea-themed ‘kissing rings’ decorated with shells, driftwood, other marine invertebrate remains.  Liz and I admire the goods and on the spur of the moment Liz asks if I would like the glass bowl clasped by an octopus as my 70th birthday gift.  Would I?!!

 

 

Twilight at Sunset and a Falling Star

The last full week of January would be busy.  On my list I wish to make a visit to Stella in Cornwall.  Wrapped into that journey will be an errand to be carried out on the beach at Fistral Bay, an overnight stay with a nephew by marriage who lives close by.  I will drive back to my home in Dorset via the village of Hawkchurch on the east margin of Devon to spend a couple of days with my sister.

So I sally forth, as I do, on Monday just before lunchtime.  I am rather later than I had intended as I wish to catch a falling tide at Fistral Bay at the end of the afternoon.  When I make the long drive to Cornwall on my own I like to take an easy-to-handle sandwich to eat as it helps to break up the monotony.  Unfortunately the bread makes me sleepy and I must pull over to rest my bleary eyes.  Just under half an hour later I resume the journey and drive to Atlantic Road, Newquay where I leave my car in the first carpark I see.  Unfortunately it is not the nearest in terms of access to the shore by a long chalk, and I needs must ask an itinerant who is sloping along the cliff path plugged into ear-phones and his rolling gait, and demeanour when I speak to him, tell me he is within a gnat’s whisker of being spaced out.  He is on the way to the Spa to buy some tinnies he tells me.  But he is amiable enough and helpful.  It takes me a good quarter of an hour to gain the sand dunes which back the wide sandy bay with its rock platform well exposed on the northeastern margin.

I’ve come to collect some Glycymeris shells, Dog Cockles, the large, showy white clam shells with a chestnut-coloured chevron pattern and which were so popular with the ancients.  They collected the pleasing round shells as talismans, as pendants to string and probably for a range of other purposes for which we can only guess.  In life the robust clams inhabit coarse sand and shelly gravel.  The species is edible and is offered for sale in France under the name ‘Amande de Mer’ meaning Sea Almond.  ese were not collected for food; their worn, beach-abraded condition sometimes with a natural hole worn at the umbo, as they are excavated at archaeological sites, testifies to the fact that they were picked up as dead shells.  Will I find any today?

Right at the top of the beach, in the upper shore sand churned by many footprints and not washed by the tide in recent days, the first shells I find are two Dog Cockles, each holed.  I am much relieved.  I need these shells to create a figure for one of the chapters I have contributed to a forthcoming box, Molluscs in Archaeology, to be published by Oxbow.  The sun has only just set and the light is fading.  I give the search a good half hour and collect x whole or nearly whole shells of which y bear a hole at the umbo.

I had arrived on the beach in the late afternoon as the sun was making hste to sink behind the distant Pentire headland.  In the twilight I allow myself time to look around and appreciate this place.  There are plenty of late afternoon walkers, many with dogs.  In the distance I can see lots of figures surfing.  A couple of youngsters catch my eye.  They are standing on the open wet sands, talking.  I love their stance, the body language I imply.  I hope they have not a care in the world.  The young are our investment for the future.  Luckily my mobile phone has charge; I take some photos, they turn out really well.IMG_5440 (3).JPG

Clutching my bag of shells I find the track down which I came to access the beach.  At the top I have two options.  I can retrace my steps across the golf course or I can hang a right and walk along a track at the top of the dunes towards the street-lit headland to the south west.  I’ve been walking a while and asked a couple of walkers if I am going the right way.  They seem to think I am.  Then I spot a chap in a hooded anorak sitting on a bench gazing out to sea.  I ask him the way and discover I have chosen to take myself well out of my way and it will be a longish walk back to my car.  It’s clear he is not entirely sure which carpark I used.  In the end he offers to give me a lift.  I don’t hesitate for long, he is pleasant and I see he is a decent and mature man when he takes down his hood and I am going to give good human nature the benefit of doubt.  We talk and it turns out he has a daughter in archaeology, he knows about Littorina, he is interested in landscape, the environment.

Gaining my car I phone Richard and Anne Oliver who live in Redruth and tell them I am on my way.  They are giving me B&B and I am going to take them to dinner at the Penventon Park Hotel which is some 200 metres from their house.  Anne greets me and we get to know more about each other over coffee.  I hear about the work she does in social services, she is a jigsaw fan  When Richard gets back we go to dinner and have a delicious meal in the spacious and slightly retro dining room of the grandiose hotel.  I have a jolt of uncertainty as we are shown to our table.  Piano music greets the ear and I see that our entertainer is a woman in a backless and flesh-coloured dress.  For a fleeting moment I think she is naked!

The following day I go to see my friend Stella Maris.  She lives in one of Cornwall’s Secret Places.  She is in her early 90s and her health started declining rapidly about three or four years ago.  These last years are years I don’t believe she would have wished for herself.  I feel this to be so because we talked often.  Now she is bedridden, has dementia and has all her personal needs met by carers who visit several times a day.  Her life-time companion, Rose, shares the cottage with Stella and is kind, solicitous and, with the help of carers and friends, keeps their boat afloat.  This seems fit because for the majority of their shared life it would be Stella who kept house for them both, who occupied herself with all their day to day routine as well as carrying on with her own work in biological recording.  Rose would spend hours in her ivory tower, working on her botanical books.  She has several to her credit.

Stella is a star whose light is dimming, slowly and inexorably.  Each time I see her she is diminished and I marvel that, given how little she eats, she yet has reserves to hang onto her life.  I have brought a book to read to her, Hare by Jim Crumley.   Stella says very little these days but I can tell that the reading gives her pleasure.  I guess this is the comfort of a human voice, and one, in truth, that she knows well.

 

 

Busy as We Like it

Over one busy weekend Nick and I spread ourselves about.  We attended a meeting of the Conchological Society at the Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road.  We heard an interesting talk on some work that is being carried out on the land snails of the Galapagos Islands.  At the end of the meeting we drove to Godalming to catch up with Ted and his parents.  We went to dinner at The Withies which still manages to please after all these forty years since we bought our house in Pep Road.  Nick and I would go there for a very occasional meal and blow the budget for an expensive treat.

On Sunday morning there was just time to eat a bacon sandwich with the Perrymans before it was necessary to load up and drive to Sutton, to the home of a former friend and colleague in conchology.  It was Phil’ Palmer who first drew me into science, causing me to shift from an enthusiastic dabbler in shell collecting  to an aspiring scientist with an every-growing passion for British marine shells.  I owe Phil’ much and encounters with his like surely altered the course of my life.16265715_1841127292832959_5561275612268152045_n

And after that we had an important date in Oxfordshire.  Our eldest grandchild is going to be sixteen, for goodness sake.  Where did that childhood go?!  He’s a star and we spent a very happy moment at the tea party his mother had arranged for the rellies.

And then it was time to drive home and prepare for my forthcoming week on the road.

 

 

 

In an Artist’s Studio

When we got back to Dorset after spending Christmas and New Year in France we found a large Ikea sack, full of mail, to open.  Before our return my great niece had done an interim count before our final tally had accumulated and counted seventy items.  There are rather more when we pick up the envelopes and various items of bumph from the door mat and add that haul of paper to the bag Cerys has filled.   It is actually a great pleasure to sit down and open all your Christmas cards in one go.  Nick and I opened, read and then laid our cards aside, making one small pile of cards that would require action.  By and large these were cards from friends who we had not managed to see during the previous year, or who were friends to whom we owed a visit.  One such was our dear artist friend, H.  “Let’s drive down and see her” said Nick.  We ‘phoned her up and fixed a date.

H lives in a small house which is one of several self-contained residences derived from a larger outbuilding (stables?) on estate where there is a large manor-type house which was built at the beginning of the 19th century in Tudor-Gothic style.   img_6577-2

The extensive parkland boasts a magnificent Cupressus macrocarpa of which H has a wonderful view from her lounge.  She serves us good coffee and very superior biscuits and we catch up on our news.  We are booked to have lunch at The Jack in the Green which is just along the road.

Before we set off she allows us a glimpse of her studio with the two canvasses on easels which have some charcoaled outlines in readiness for the two paintings of our French house that she intends.

Lunch is very superior too.  We each choose a plate from their Pub Grub listing.  H goes for triple Bangers and Mash, Nick chooses a Mutton and Caper suet pudding and I go for Smoked Confit of Duck Leg.  It really has been good to catch up H again, she is a wonderful octogenarian companion.

Here and There in the Fresh Sea Air

After Christmas excesses it is good to walk and with our lovely coast there is variety and interest always.  A walk round La Hougue is always a pleasure although I see that with the passing of years – we have been here for nearly twelve years – the most seaward stretches of that circuitous wall are narrow.  Time’s coming when I think it will be sensible to go with a companion.  I love going to Pointe de Saire because this is a honey-pot for shell collectors and it is rare that I do not find a wentletrap or two when I rake over the shell-rich deposits which get left in drifts against sand waves and banks.  The point is a place of high energy; the rise and fall of the tides, together with the rip currents which run round that headland and through the channel between raised areas of granite outcrop are continually lifting and redepositing the shelly sands and gravels.  Bedforms are reconfigured and new shapes are created and strandlines are recast in diverse patterns.  Garlands of shells lie in the narrow and shallow runnels between sand waves and ripples.  The sea is the ultimate sorter, it is a subtle process.

Just before New Year we shared a delightful interlude with Tanou and Jean-Pierre.    They are great gamers, of the Scrabble, Barbu and other card games ilk.  We were invited to late afternoon tea with goodies that they had bought at one of the excellent Christmas Markets that take place in Alsace.  In recent years similar events have started to take place in the UK.  The Natural History Museum hosts such a seasonal market and an ice rink is installed alongside and the sight of skaters as I hasten to catch an Underground train after an afternoon meeting of the Conchological Society is one of those key moments with which I associate the impending festival.  Walking home from their home, ‘La Bouillote’ :D, we pass a house whose front garden features small trees which have been garlanded with baubles and an engaging sign on the gatepost which reads: “Here lives a happy retired person”.

Walking back to my parked car after an expedition to Pointe de Saire I was looking for possible new sources of shell-rich strandline to browse.  There were certainly distinct drifts of seaweed, with the sea’s most recent delivery of shells, to scan for unusual species.  But what I noticed in particular were the right (i.e. convex, lower) and the left (i.e. flat, upper) valves of Pecten maximus scattered across the upper shore, like so many open fans.  Lovely.

Les Petits Gris a Midi and much more…..

 

Coloured fairy lights, and twinkly bits and pieces are finding their place in the house.  By the time the Perrymans arrive the only task remaining will be to decorate the Christmas Tree.  During this week Nick will celebrate his birthday and we are invited to supper that evening by Soizic and Pierrick.  Coincidentally Soisiz celebrates her birthday the day after Nick.  We are taken by the Poulets through whom we know S and P, and another couple who are mutual sailing friends of the quartet, join us too.  The house has been decorated and it is a festive evening.

One lunch-time we are invited to eat escargots chez Taille.   They have a neighbour, Jean-Claude, who collects them and his wife prepares them. resizeescargots-2Mimi has worked her way most recently through seven hundred snails and has declared she is not going to do any more!  These are all the so-called Petit Gris, that is Cornu aspersum, the common garden snail.  We love eating them and so does Francois, Fefe on the other hand prefers to eat some squid prepared ‘a la Francois’.

Nick goes fishing a couple of times and brings home some useful catch.  He fishes for squid on one day and manages to catch three modestly sized ones. img_5236 I have picked up a different way of cooking squid from Francois Taille, which involves soaking them in boiled and cooled milk spiced with star anise.  You then toss the squid pieces in a frying pan with a bit of garlic butter.  As long as you don’t overdo it the squid is wonderfully tender.  A couple of days later Nick goes fishing a second time with Stephen and they have a rewarding day, catching five species which includes four Red Gurnard, Pout Whiting, a Red Mullet, a Mackerel and a Bream.

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On Saturday evening we have a date at the Daniell house for Carol Singing and Mince Pies. To my shame I get the timing wrong and we arrive and hour and a half late and there is no way out other than to confess.  Yes, we could blame it on a number of things not least the very nasty blanket of fog which has enveloped our bit of Normandy but honesty wins over.  It is a very pleasant, and distinctly English, occasion with the majority of the guests being ex-pats including two Americans.  I start to chat to American Gerry, who we met last time, and am completely mystified and shocked when she tells me that although she could not vote she would surely have voted for Trump because she did not like or trust Hillary.  She feels we should wait and see because it won’t all be bad and in any event, she tells me and I don’t know if this is true or not, Trump is currently touring the States, talking to voters, telling them he didn’t mean everything he said, he wanted to get elected.  I feel a wave of dislike and anger rise up and fortunately Lorraine calls us to order for the singing of more carols.

Fortunately we know some thoroughly interesting and thoughtful Americans who have real political integrity and as it happens are great friends.  They come to supper on Sunday to celebrate their arrival in St Vaast that afternoon and I make Rick Stein’s seafood tourte and we play a hand of Spite and Malice.  The fog, which has been hanging around, continues to come and go and Ty later sends me a photo of our house.spookyhouse

On Monday I start to make my curries.  The Tenorios, the Daniells and the da Costas are coming to us for a curry evening.  They will Christine Street’s Chicken curry and our own Pollack Goa Fish Curry, with a Daal and some Naan breads.  Our own house Lemon Pickle is hugely appreciated.  Which reminds me that I must make some more.

This soiree brings our pre-Christmas social activity to a close and we then prepare for the arrival of the Perrymans.  When they arrive the adults are ready to switch off.  They work long and hard hours.  Teddy is full of excitement and we will spend the next few days doing Christmas, tout tranquille a la maison, just us and some presents and some good things to eat.  jigsawCharlotte starts a Christmas jigsaw and I work on finishing my jigsaw in progress. Our differing approach to tackling our puzzles, and how we arrange our pieces, is quite amusing.  RubyGymnast.jpgThe Hackneys send us some lovely family photos including one of Ruby who has excelled at gymnastics!  We learn that the new best friend she made that day is standing on the podium numbered 1.

The Perrymans head for home after Boxing Day, in time for their New Year celebrations with their usual suspects.  We had a similar thing going with the Pitts, Leathers and another couple when we decamped to the Pitt family holiday home at West Wittering during the afternoon of the 31st.  Unlike the Perryman cohort who do fancy dress which they order off the Internet, we used to wheel out our black tie and ballgowns.  These were special occasions and they make for good memories and it was a tradition which endured a good while.  On New Year’s Day we would walk the shoreline around West Wittering, returning for lunch before driving back to Surrey.  And then things started to unravel, but it was fun whilst it lasted and all these things are of their moment.  There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”  In St Vaast we celebrated New Year with the Poulets, who are the best of neighbours, and a day or two after we undressed the house and would be heading for Dorset and 2017.

 

 

 

A Pot of Coffee and a Mince Pie…..

……………… is all you need for breakfast in the Christmas aftermath.  Weeks behind with my blog, I now settle to a morning at my screen with a mug to my right and my diary to my left.  I must go back to November 28th.

With my Christmas willow tree worked and sitting in the hall awaiting shipment, I now turn to the task of sorting things that will need to travel to France,  wrapping a few presents and writing my remaining share of Christmas cards, assisting Gill with the cleaning and turning out things that she can usefully take for her car boot enterprises.  I slip down to Weymouth to visit Mum. mum1-2 Also I have managed to persuade Nick to come back from France a day earlier than he had planned so we can spend a day with the Dukes.

We meet at the car park by Thorncombe Wood near Bockhampton.  Hardy’s Cottage is nearby, it is a popular spot for visitors and walkers.  We make a short circuit through the woodland and heath and end up at the dog-friendly café where we have a light lunch. img_5305-2 Initially Maddy had proposed a walk but I tacked on the idea that we go to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  in Dorchester.  Written in 2001 by J K Rowling under the pen name of Newt Scamander it is about the magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe.  This would be my second viewing of the film at a cinema, a rare occurrence in my film-going experience.  Rather like books, I only do works of fiction once. My favourite beast is this fellow: niffler%20fantastic%20beasts-png

After the film we went back to Maiden Newton for tea then drove ourselves back into Dorchester for dinner at the Cote Brasserie.  A restaurant which is not expensive and manages reasonably authentic French cuisine.

Cut to Thursday morning and we must be on the ferry ready for departure at 08.30h.  The car is packed full.  Our departure is delayed after a minor medical emergency for which the lack-lustre ambulance service manages to delay us by a couple of hours.  Happily I am always content to be on the Barfleur.

The weekend is spent quietly and I start to think about decorating the house.  I go up to the top floor to investigate the walk-in cupboard where I keep Christmas decorations.  I am somewhat nonplussed to find very few boxes and certainly none of the old familiars.  I realise in that moment that they are sitting in our garage in Dorset, stacked where they were stacked last January ready for transport to France.  In my mind this task had been completed but in reality the boxes have been moved and re-arranged during the year by Nick without him realising what they contained.  At least the wooden reindeer made it across the Channel.  Once I look at the contents of the boxes and bags which are there I realise I will have enough baubles and tree ornaments for the fresh green tree, as well as the new willow one.  This will be a year for holly and ivy over the pictures, and candles, lots of them.

We will gradually start to pick up with our friends.  Martine and Alain come from Paris at the beginning of the week and we meet them that evening for a meal at Le Chasse Maree.  This restaurant has recently changed ownership and the new management are more agreeable than the former.  We enjoy our food there.  The Tailles invite us to eat native oysters at midday.

That is a real treat, they are more favoured than the locally farmed non-native ‘huitre creuse’ but I would be hard pushed to distinguish the two were I to subject myself to a blind tasting.

Friday is a very special day in that I go to have coffee with my talented friend Bibi who I haven’t seen since April.  This seems incredible but she spent two months in Mexico painting a stunning mural in a friend’s house and then we were away in June, then summer intervened and a busy autumn and that’s how it went.  She makes lovely things.  Her current theme is to create puzzles, wooden shapes which form her special brand of jigsaw puzzle and each puzzle comes in its own box which is a work of art.

I love them all but cannot resist the Picasso one which I buy then give to Nick on his birthday!  He likes it too. In the evening we have been invited to eat chez Burnouf, and Dede serves a delicious ‘couscous’.  The Poulets are there, also the Tailles, wonderfully convivial.

Over the weekend Bibi and three other friends hold a Christmas ‘Expo’ and sale of their work.  15380688_551366855059399_4150434975071553341_nI am able to properly meet Charlotte Franklin who I spoke to briefly in the summer at the Daniell event.  She is a talented painter and sculptor and a friend of La Poulette.  I buy some of her lovely cards.  Then it’s also good to meet up with Pink Sarah, she who made the tartan replica of my favourite pinafore dress.  I decide to take a couple of ‘off-the-pegs’ into my wardrobe.  There is a charming Frenchwoman, Florence Renault, who makes beautiful jewellery in glass.  Some Euros are parted with.   Having been in the morning, I later accompany la Poulette and Fefe who both expressed an interest in going to the sale.  As it happens they each buy a version of the striped ponchos that Sarah has made.  I think they suit their respective new owners well although later I gather from Fefe that she has gone off the boil with hers as she feels as if she has a rug slung about her shoulders.  I think she may be missing the point!

By Sunday evening that’s a diverse week wrapped up, another one is in view.

A Walk in the Woods

When Dédé and Françoise proposed a walk in the woods, little did I imagine what a unique moment this would be, for me.  Françoise’s email ran as follows “Mercredi,  à 14 heure veut tu venir avec André et moi aux champignons?   Nous serons de retour pour 17 hr.  On vient te chercher si tu peux ? Gros Bisous.   ‘Aux champignons?  In December?!!  I concluded that ‘aux champignons’ would be an expression, a watchword if you like, to denote a gentle ramble in the countryside.

Since Nick and I bought our French house eleven years ago we have never been for a walk in French woods!  IMG_5347 (2).JPG

When I think about that it is rather extraordinary.  We have walked often enough along the shores and coast of the Cotentin, round La Hougue many times, and less frequently inland within our neighbourhood.  But we have not experienced true French countryside at first hand.  One reason is that ‘the right to roam’ does not exist in France.  Much land is in private ownership and much of that is managed for hunting.  ‘Chasse garde’ or ‘Chasse prive’.

We were picked up at 2 o’clock and the first surprise was that we would be going by car.  Dédé drove us to a bit of well-established woodland that he has known since he was a boy.  Indeed as a boy he used to forage for mushrooms. I think it was a clandestine activity; I am not even sure we should be here today, there are wooden signs nailed to trees all around.  img_5333-2 It would not be giving too much away to say that the locality is called Montaigu, a sprawling area of woodland either side of the main road to Valognes.  Montaigu la Brisette covers an area of some 1500 sq. km.  We drove down a few lanes and then a track.  Dédé parked the car.  There was a very fine drizzle, at times more like a swirling mist, which persisted throughout the afternoon.  It was rather pleasant: humidity and fungi are happy companions.  We walked into the woodland with some purpose and before long our hosts were stopping and staring at the ground.  And there they were, small brown circular shapes with fluted edges, the caps of Chanterellesimg_5336-2Chanterelles, also known as Girolles, Cantharellus cibarius, are probably the best known species of the genus Cantharellus.  Wikipedia tells us that the mushroom is orange or yellow, meaty and funnel-shaped. On the lower surface, underneath the smooth cap, it has gill-like ridges that run almost all the way down its stipe, which tapers down seamlessly from the cap. It emits a fruity aroma, reminiscent of apricots and a mildly peppery taste and is considered an excellent edible mushroom.

Our mushrooms, my expert mycologist sister has since told me, were  Cantharellus infundibuliformis.  img_5339-2A common mushroom that grows in large groups in wooded areas and damp places. They are characterized by dark brown caps that measure up to two inches across and brownish-yellow stems. The underside of the cap features narrow veins rather than gills. They are known as Yellow Legs and have a pleasant aroma but are very bitter if eaten raw. They are best when added to dishes that are slow cooked which makes them tender and much more flavoursome. They will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to a week and they are very easy to dry.

We browsed our way through the woods, stooping to gather freely where the toadstools were fruiting.  img_5349-2Once you knew what you were looking for their congregations were not difficult to spot.  They appear, in pockets, in much the same places year after year.  We all gathered a magnificent haul of the dainty mushrooms.  Along the way we saw other fungus species.  Dede gave me their names and I later emailed Françoise: “J’ai trouvé les autres champignons dont nous avons parlé aujourd’hui, Peziza orangée, Clavaire choufleur, Pied de mouton.  Il y avait , je pense un autre quatrieme ‘quelquechose de bois’ que j’oublie?  Donc Peziza s’appelle Orange Peel fungus (zeste du orange), Clavaire choufleur s’appelle Coral fungus, Pied de mouton s’appelle ‘Wood Hedgehog fungus’ cela veut dire Herisson du bois!!  Ce nom-là est tres drôle.”img_5356-4

At the end of our walk Dédé stopped to take some small pine tree branches for Christmas decoration then we took a circuitous route back to the car.  img_5350-2As we swished our way through the thick and loosely packed leaf litter, with the starkness of the tall skinny pine trees and the prickly holly scrub all around, I was reminded of Middle Earth, and hobbits, and hidden places where secretive and unseen beings may be watching.  These woods are known to be home to wild boar; we saw plenty of evidence of scrapes in the rich, vegetative soil, especially beneath trees.  Wild boar root for acorns but there were few oak trees around.  I wondered if the animals had been searching for truffles.  Ever since I read Richard Fortey’s homage to woodlands  I have learnt that truffles might be more widespread than is believed.  The locations where you can find truffles are not often shared between fungi officinados.  They are expensive.  I checked one supplier’s prices: a smooth black truffle about the size of a conker would cost you £49.  There is so much mystique around the subject. img_5361-2

Delivered to our front door we thanked Dédé and Françoise as profusely as we could in flowery French, for such a wonderful and very special afternoon with them.  Fungi foragers do not easily share their haunts and expertise with others.  Once indoors I set to and sorted my haul into mushrooms that would be dried, others to cook within a few days and, following Dede’s advice, I removed all the stalks which would be used to make a veloute.

The following day I sautéed some in a pan with butter then folded them through some saffron tagliatelle with crème fraiche.  Another way to eat the fresh little mushrooms is to fry them in a pan until crispy and then make an omelette around them.img_5370-2

Drying mushrooms is a very straightforward process.  Various methods are suggested although I discovered that putting them in a very low temperature oven did not work as the mushrooms started to cook and yield their liquid.  Better was putting them on a wire rack on top of the wood-burning stove.  I have a proper food dryer and dehydrator but not where I need it!

Gathering wild mushrooms then taking them home to create tasty dishes; it doesn’t get much better.

 

A Basket Case

I will remember this autumn for several reasons, some are good and some not so.  One highlight has been the participation I have had in Willow Weaving workshops run by Kim Cresswell.  With a badger and goose in the bag from earlier sessions I have now added a passable roe deer and today, oh joy, I made a cone basket.  Here was my mission:

Forage a Basket

Learn how to source, grow and harvest your own materials in an environmentally aware fashion – we will spend the morning collecting lots of different materials from a traditionally layered hedgerow and a mixed variety withy bed. In the afternoon we will each make a cone basket using materials from the location. NB. Please wear waterproofs and wellies for the morning session and have something more comfortable for the afternoon.

This was going to be extra special because my sister had signed up for this course as well.  And what has made this course particularly enjoyable is that we foraged our own materials.  img_6431-2blogWe gathered in Kim’s cabin in the morning to be shown the amazing range of shrubs and trees from which our materials can be sourced: Hazel, Ash, Blackthorn, Field Maple, Dogwood, Apple, Holly, Bramble….. as well as a colourful array of Willow.  We then went out into the lane to cut our own twigs; straight canes for the sticks for the framework and thinner whippy ones for the ‘weavers’.  img_5231-2

Having cut a range of ‘wild’ materials we were then taken back onto Kim’s land to search out some long Bramble trailers.  The trick was to find the end of a shoot running underneath the grass path and then tracing it back as far as you could to get the length.  We each selected a long whippy trailer or two of the Bramble which we stripped of its thorns using a stout leather glove.  Thence down to Kim’s withy bed to cut some sticks from her own source.  We were allowed to cut 15 canes and 15 weavers at a specified height so as not to undermine the plants.  The range of colours was vibrant: yellow, orange, red, purple, green.  Willow, and indeed all woody material, is best cut between November and March when the sap is not rising.  img_5235-2Armed with our personal supplies we then went back to the cabin where we stripped leafy material and unwanted axial shoots off our canes.  It was lunchtime………

After lunch we began the serious business of making our baskets.  Starting with 6 straight sticks we bound these at the base with two weavers which we then proceeded to weave upwards, in and out of the sticks to start our cone.  We continued in this fashion introducing weavers as necessary and at approximately a half way point we introduced 6 more sticks each alongside the original canes, to give us a dozen uprights in the frame.img_5239-2  All these uprights were chosen from the colourful withies we had collected from Kim’s bed.

We continued in this fashion, choosing a variety of woods and the bramble to give a colourfully banded willow cone.  Kim did her rounds with the six of us, lending an expert hand when we looked as if we might be in danger of losing the shape, or the thread.  Bimg_5237-2efore long it was time to think about shaping the top of our baskets and making the border.  I had wondered how one managed to do this without snapping the sticks as you need to bend the canes over at right angles.  However it was straightforward as the fresh materials were more pliable than the pre-cut and dried willow which has to be soaked before it is used – as has been the case with the badger, the goose and the deer.  I loved working with the freshly cut wood and the colours were wonderful to play with. img_6497 Putting the handle on was a doddle.  All the baskets were individual and some more accomplished than others.  Ivy, Rosemary and Lavender were used as embellishments by some.  What has made mine special is that I managed to use some Hazel weavers with catkin buds which have stayed in place and Kim tells me that spraying them with hairspray will help to prevent them from dropping!  What a fun day!

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