Razor-clamming Days

 

These are cold, windy days on the east Cotentin.  Nick is spending a lot of time in the Bois de Rabelais where he and fellow woodsmen have felled an ancient beech and are busy logging it.  Dede l’Accroche is a willing helper.  He of the fungus forays, prawning pursuits, razor-clam raids.  When we arrived in St Vaast three weeks ago we found a yellow plastic bag hanging on our front door handle.  A gift of some couteaux from Dede.  IMG_6653 (2).JPG

Two days ago Nick and I braved a squall, with wind-driven rain pricking our faces, to go digging with Dede for couteaux.  At first Nick had mixed success whilst I trickled up and down the shoreline peering into the murky, rippling sea looking for scallops and other goodies.

Rejoining Nick I started to help him look for the characteristic depressions or holes at the surface which suggest an inhabitant in the sand below.  Soon we set up an efficient team.  I spotted the holes, Nick dug deep with his trusty French fork, and I scanned the diggings to look for razor clams which I spotted more easily than Nick did.  Et voila!  Une bonne equipe 🙂

Later in my kitchen, whilst processing the clams for supper I steamed some of the razors in white wine so the shells could flip open.  What a surprise.  A new piece of information for this seasoned conchologist.  During the foray I had noticed one razor clam that went into the basket was the non-native species Ensis leei, formerly known as Ensis americanus or Ensis directus As one of its names implies, the species is a North American alien, which was first recorded in 1979 near the Dutch coast, spread across the North Sea and is now rapidly spreading in northern direction and also working its way round the English and French coasts of the Channel.  It seems to do well because it has slightly different sedimentary preferences from our other native species.

My new piece of information is that, in addition to the morphological differences in shell shape, and internal muscles scars, the soft body is different too.  It is a strange body indeed, and has invoked some saucy suggestions from those who are familiar with it 😀  And it would seem that, certainly after cooking, the foot of the animal has a rosy blush that the white animal of Ensis arcuatus does not have.  Useful stuff 😀

 

Seven Shellers wash up at St Vaast

Earlier this year the Programme Secretary of the Conchological Society made a plea for offers to lead field trips.  I looked at my diary and the timing of spring tides and offered a few days in October.  The year wore on, our diary filled up, the EU referendum happened and my enthusiasm waned somewhat.  However an Offer means an Offer so here we are awaiting the arrival of three couples and a single woman – all these people are members of the Society but are, to all intents and purposes, friends too.   Although we are all mollusc enthusiasts and we are gathered to look for and record occurrences of marine molluscs,  the second discipline that unites us is archaeology.  Seven out of the nine share that skill, whereas only five us could be said to be mollusc experts.  By Saturday evening we are assembled and sit down to share our welcoming House Special, a fish pie.

On Sunday I propose that we should visit the shore where Nick and I found two live ormers (Haliotis tuberculata) about eight years ago. Despite the benefit of several pairs of eyes we do not succeed.  I keep my eyes open all week and it is only on the last day of fieldwork that some of us find fragments of abalone shell on a beach on the north Cotentin at Plage des Sablons.  I know that the species is living at Cap Levi because I have witnessed pecheurs a pied coming off the beach with ormers in their string collecting bags.  Although we are working springs I think we probably need the best spring tides to have a chance of finding the animals.

We work several shores and Nick, Bas and Terry go out twice on Aroona with our small Naturalists’ Dredge.  They have some success with these trips and Bas seems well pleased with the hauls.  I think the highlight of shore excursions must lie in the foray that we make onto the sandflats on the seaward side of the town marina.  This is the area that is traditionally dug for Razor Clams when spring tides prevail.  Our good friend Andre agrees to accompany us onto that shore and show us how it is done.  Nick has had this experience before and in the past I have gone down onto the beach to observe the locals wielding their clamming forks.  It is a bit of a feeding frenzy and at the end of the afternoon the sandflats are a devastation.  Fortunately in comes the tide and many of the spoil heaps are washed over although the following day does still bear witness to the upheaval.  The darker sediments which are turned over in the hunt for razor clams remain near the surface for several tides afterwards before they are taken back into the mix.

At the end of the afternoon we have a very decent haul of Ensis arcuatus and assorted clams, a couple of Buccinum, and some King and Queen scallops.  Over the next couple of days we eat some of our foraged molluscs with risotto, and enjoy razor clams with tagliatelle and a wine, cream, garlic and parsley sauce.  These things taste so good.  I feel like a ‘creature’ of the sea.

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At the end of the trip our house guests go home.  It has been an interesting week and we have pulled some decent species lists together for the various sites we worked.  Three of us couples have been spending a week in September together for the past seven years.  We have rented a big house and have been working on stretches of coast in various parts of the country: Skye, Pembroke, Connemara, north Devon, Scarborough, Anglesey and most recently south Devon.  It has always been fun, notably because we thoroughly enjoy going to the shore whether to shell or birdwatch of just to amble.  We three women thoroughly enjoy cooking for the assembled.  We take it in turns.  But something has changed and we can blame that on Brexit.  Would that we had all voted the same way but you cannot turn the clock back.  Divisions have riven the country, communities, families and groups of friends.  The damage runs deep for some more than others.  As I say, something has changed and our particular golden age of sharing a capacious house with a large table to eat and discourse around has passed.  In these recent days I have read a cleverly worded definition of ‘Leave’ in the context of the EU:  it will be ‘To regain what we never lost by losing everything we ever had’

Bass Notes

My husband is a fisherman.  He fishes mostly out of St Vaast where we live some of the time.  At the weekend he went fishing with friends, it was a long distance fishing trip, twenty miles to the northeast.  They were two boats.  There were four fishermen in total and they fished Pollack, mackerel, whiting and one enormous bass.  It measured 75 cms and weighed 4.5 kilos.  It was caught on an English rig using a mackerel bait.  Such a fish is a prize and an act of generosity is to share such bounty.

So we found ourselves chez Tailles on Tuesday lunchtime where Dede, having caught this splendid fish, had given Francois the responsibility and pleasure of cooking it for a gathering of friends.  This wonderful fish was filleted, descaled and then stuffed with lobster and crab and finally wrapped en croute before being baked in the oven.  Before we tucked into our share, we ate an entrée of pink grapefruit and crevette roses, this having been composed by Odette.  The combination of the grapefruit and the prawns was impeccably colour-coordinated but even more importantly, it tasted delicious.

It was a very convivial occasion and I was delighted to have an appropriate anecdote for the occasion.  Rather a letter to read out of Nick’s copy of The Week.  Translating as I went the letter (originally published in The Times, ran as follows:

‘You flagged up your complete seafood guide with the words: “Lovely lobster, but what can I do with it?!”  In the early 1970s, I was living in Dublin.  My neighbour was presented with a live lobster and had no idea how to prepare it.  He put it on the lawn and shot it’.

This would never happen in France, not then and not now!  The passion for seafood is deeply embedded in French culture.  I have never understood why we, across that narrow tract of water that separates the British Isles from its European neighbours on our shared continental shelf at the present day, have never come to espouse a tradition of eating all fruits from the sea, not just bony fish with a few members of the shark family thrown into the pot.

There we are.  Things are changing.  Oysters have always been available but for many have been just too yucky.  Until relatively recently they tended to be offered for sale in exclusive oyster bars in London and some further flung satellites, such as English’s  the restaurant and oyster bar nestled in Little London of Brighton.  Oysters are farmed more widely now and they feature on fish counters in supermarkets.  Similarly nets of mussels can be bought over the supermarket counter and their popularity gathered momentum, it seems to me, when pubs started putting moules marinieres on their menus.  So in my lifetime I have seen a resurgence in seafood eating in my native land.

I was fortunate to have a father who not only enjoyed fishing, and transferred this enthusiasm to my husband, but was exceedingly fond of cockles.  blogIMG_6278 (2)When he was moved to Portland Naval Base in the 1960s we, as a family, found ourselves adjacent to the sand flats at Smallmouth, Portland Harbour where we enjoyed the bonus of a double low tide.  blogIMG_6280 (3)On the occasions of the low spring tides, and for four hours, we could paddle across these sands gathering all manner of Venus bivalves, razor clams, and cockles.  My father had a childhood tradition for eating cockles and he would go and gather beauties from Smallmouth.  He had his own method for soaking the cockles in their shells, in fresh water with oatmeal to encourage the cockles to purge themselves.  Then they would be boiled until the shells snapped open, the little mollusc bodies would then be removed and popped into a jar with a little vinegar.

At that time I was in the salad days of my growing enthusiasm, and dare I say, talent for shelling.  In addition to the above species I was able to add some beautiful rarities to my collection, notably Tellina squalida and Pandora albidablogAngulusblog100112_pandora (2)Latin names are changed by taxonomists in time, but these are the names that resonate and transport me back to those heady days when you could wade through those shallow waters inside Portland Harbour  searching for the familiar outlines and colours of those lovely shells.

At the end of a special day I find myself enjoying a new experience.  Dede, he who caught the magnificent fish that we ate at lunchtime, has invited me to join him, his granddaughter Auranne and a few neighbours for a late night swim off La Chapelle near the St Vaast boatyard.  I have not swum at 10 o’clock in the evening before, nor from the promenade along there.  At high tide you can descend the white wooden staircase and lower yourself into the deep!  After a warm day and with a balmy evening, the sea felt positively tepid.  With quite a bit of undulating movement, the sea rocked us as we swam in a tight group, keeping an eye on our neighbours for their security and one’s own.

 

Wig and Ian

A few days after the Duke’s visit we were pleased to receive Wig and Ian.  Wig and I go back decades, five in fact.  We met when we signed up for a bi-lingual secretarial course which was being offered by a college in my home town at the time, Weymouth.  We have kept in touch over the years and last year we celebrated our fifty years of friendship at the home of another contemporary. DSC00128 (2)

Whilst they were with us we enjoyed a bit of walking and some good occasions around the dining table.  Sunshine allowed us to manage some meals out of doors.  As a thank you our guests treated us to an evening chez Fuchsias where we dined well, seated at the round table in the conservatory which looks out onto the gardens.  DSC05248 (2)From my kitchen I offered them seafood bisque, fish pie, scallops en croute and oysters.  We spent a happy time.WigIanNickblog

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Back in Winterborne K we enjoyed some quality time with villagers.  The Roses laid on a Bookish Lunch to which we, the Shaxsons, Sallie O and Jan D were invited.  Everyone enjoyed the occasion.  In the evening I joined my Bridge bunch then on Saturday evening we met Christine and Malcolm for a curry at Namaste Gurkha in Blandford.  The restaurant is bijou, the food was good and extremely good value.  We met ostensibly for Christine and I to talk Books but in the event Nick hijacked the evening and he and Christine talked politics and current affairs.  That was a turn up for the Books!

A Gathering of Archaeomalacologists

Every two years a Working Group of archaeologists whose research focuses on mollusc/shell use by man since the beginning of his time.  It has a Facebook page with the following mission statement:

“The International Council for Archaeozoology (ICAZ) shell working group was proposed and subsequently established after the 2002 ICAZ conference in Durham. It consists of people from around the world who have an interest in shell recovered from archaeological deposits – whether that be as evidence of past subsistence strategies, palaeoenvironments, artefact production or a myriad of other things.

At the 2012 AMWG meeting in Cairns, a Facebook page was proposed to allow archaeomalacologists from all over the world to communicate ideas, ask questions, interact and share knowledge.  The Facebook group signed up to this page thus have a useful forum for informal discussion.”

And so it is that I find myself amongst a group of people, most of whom are academics working on shell remains retrieved from archaeological sites. 12473958_1178219122223001_4723675153117683856_o The papers presented variously dealt with molluscan topics such as oysters, scaphopods (so-called tusk shells) from sites in India, freshwater mussels from Wisconsin, cowrie shells as currency from the Indian Ocean, shells for building materials, for beads, for purple dye extraction.  And of course for food.

The highlight for me was a paper given by Maureen Moore, one time curator at the East London Museum in South Africa.  She gave a biologist’s observations on the use of Mollusca by the Xhosa peoples of South Africa.  A breath of fresh air because here was someone who had seen at first hand how a tribe of indigenous people living at Mbotyi in the Transkei practised fishing to supplement their meagre cattle and sheep dietary contributions.

The seas are very rough on that area known as the Wild Coast so places for collecting molluscs are few and far between.  But Maureen did observe women collecting from one particular rockpool and the processing practices on the shore.  Only a dozen women of around 40 years would gather the shells; no younger women or children would accompany them.  This is at odds with a received belief that children would accompany women to the shore to gather seafood.  It rather suggests that some status is attached to a ‘permit’ to collect molluscs.

Maureen went on to describe other methods the women used whilst gathering what she noted to be exclusively gastropods, and mentions species that were collected.  Her article will appear in a forthcoming issue of the inhouse magazine of The Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Mollusc World,  and I cannot wait to read it.

 

Prim, Proper and some Bridges to Cross

It is that time of the year, when banks of primroses grace the roadside verges and you just want to keep stopping the car and take photos.  I captured a few today on my way back from Valognes after an appointment with Manu.  I’ve got primroses out in my garden and there are two clumps underneath the large Euphorbia which grows by the pergola which is covered in Honeysuckle which seem to flower the whole year through.

 

After our three gastronomic events with friends it was time to eat at home and try to tackle some of freezer stock.  The day before I arrived in St Vaast Nick had been fishing and and taken a good haul of Pollack.  We now have a good stock of large white fish fillets and he has saved me heads and frames to make the other kind of stock, which I find so useful as a base for soups and for poaching.  Once cooked it is a fiddly job to pick the white fish bits of the heads and bones to add to the gluey stock.  I used this to make a big vat of bisque, taking carrots, rice and some leek to thicken the liquid, as well as some of the fish and scallop frills and then some spices.  It has to be bizzed up and the result is an orange seafoody looking bisque which tastes wonderfully savoury and gets stowed away for lunches for forthcoming visitors.

I’m only in France for just under week before I need to board a ferry to return to WK for a Bridge tutorial weekend.  Our tutor Barry is scheduled to teach us for four hours on Saturday and Sunday.  He arrives just after lunch and we settle down to learning some new ‘tricks’.  It is time to find out about the Blackwood convention and with the addition of this system to our repertoire we can hold our heads up and begin to play in the wider world.  We enjoy a meal at The Greyhound in the evening, a chance for the pub to redeem itself after the disastrous serving of crayfish which Barry received last time we treated him to his meal.  On Sunday morning Cybs cooks us a fab full English after which we settle down to another four hours with thirty minutes for tea, coffee and cake.  At the end of all this brain exercise I am quite spent but needs must, and there is a house to re-order for the kids’ Easter break, before I leave on Monday morning to rejoin Nick in la belle France

Scallops Galore and a Lamb

No sooner back in St Vaast than we find ourselves the beneficiaries of neighbourly goodwill.  We had forgotten that we had placed an order for scallops with Georgy.  So when he turned up on our doorstep on Wednesday morning with a 10 kilo sack of Coquilles St Jacques, it was a matter of laying the tasks that were in hand to one side, in order to shuck aromatically delicious contents of the classically famous and familiar fan-shaped shells.  That’s a lot of round white clammy muscles with the curved orange roes attached.  Stowed in the frozen food bank which is our freezer, they will be drawn down from time to time to be chased around the pan with various of garlic, ginger, chilli, lardons, white wine ….

The following day Nick drove out to the Daniell residence to assist in the butchery of our lamb.  He returned with a crate of meat which we also bagged up and laid down in the ice box.  We have enough protein for months…….

For me the current slot at St Vaast will necessarily be a short one but before I board my ferry we are invited to lunch chez Taille where Francois cooks his divine St Jacques en Croute.  As a special treat he seals two scallops with some shavings of truffle and shreds of carrot into a shell and encases the whole in flaky pastry.  Just leaving a window in the upper surface to allow you to view what you have in store and admire the shell.  At the end of the first week of December I must return to England because I have special birthday celebrations to prepare for.

 

The JACS Experience

When I get back to the house after my walk there is no time for the luxury of a hot bath and feet up with a good book.  Oh no…. the Cholseys’ ferry will be docking at Cherbourg around 8 o’clock and there is a welcome to prepare.  All the beds are made and it will be a question of putting some kind of spread on the table for them to graze.  When they burst through the front door there are hugs and greetings and then they spill out of the back door and I hear the unmistakeable sound of the little red and yellow plastic car being ridden around the terrace.  The little vehicle is iconic, they have all been playing with it since the earliest St Vaast days………… 10 years ago………… when Sam was 4!  These days they squeeze into the driver’s seat and the older children push the younger ones around.  The little red car is intermittently whizzed around the terrace for the duration of their visit and sometimes we have to call a halt when we struggle to hold a conversation against a background of noisy trundle.

We have 10 days ahead of us.  In this time we will spend time at the beach, joined by the Tuttle children for water play and cricket.  The Tuttle children also join our lot chez eux; they have a great afternoon playing Mölkky, a Finnish throwing game which is a bit like skittles, and delving in Claire’s dressing up box.  The Tuttles entertain us to an evening BBQ where I get to have a go at dressing up too!  They love the game of Sardines and play this at both 104 and 125.

Barney takes the children climbing at La Glacerie.  We all chip in with inventive cookery; Joel and I make a squid curry for which the children come back for seconds and thirds (!) and Lukie makes a fab Beef Wellington.  Joel makes scotch eggs which are so yummy and he spends time with Nick preparing smoked mackerel for our famous pate.  One evening we have a Degustation of Fruits de Mer and the children gamefully try things they have not eaten before.  I have delved in the freezer and found a box of ready-prepared escargots which I grill and serve.  Amelie tries one and chews it thoughtfully.  She is rather inscrutable at the end of it, I am not sure if she liked it or not, but I think she is pleased to have tried.

All too soon their holiday is at an end.  They have been with us just over a week and it has whizzed by.

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A Neighbourly Interlude

Cybs and Eamonn spend three full days and a bit with us.  We spend much time relaxing meals and Cybs and I play cards.  She teaches me Bezique which I am immediately enamoured by.  We also play Barbu as a foursome.  Eamonn is a willing candidate for fishing and more mackerel, whiting and Pollack come to the kitchen.  We all get involved in making further batches of smoked mackerel pate.  Cybs and I make jam with a €4.50 box of apricots from Intermarche.  We use a Delia Smith recipe which involves layering the halved fruits with the sugar and leaving them overnight to firm up, and also adding some of the blanched kernels to the finished jam. On Sunday we take a turn round the perimeter wall of La Hougue and then have a salmon and courgette quiche salad at La Hougette which is excellent value.  In the afternoon as a last minute idea we decide to visit the British and Commonwealth Cemetery at Bayeux (which Nick and I have not visited before), stopping first at La Cambe to see the German one.  How very different in style and mood are these two memorial sites for the WWII fallen. Our hosting role is uncomplicated and a great pleasure.  Whilst Cybs and I know each other well through our bridge, Eamonn and Nick have hitherto had a largely peripheral friendship but they got on extremely well. On the final day it is all hands on deck readying the house for a late afternoon departure.  A spanner (but a welcome one) is thrown into the works when Daniel arrives with 3 live lobsters, 2 tourteaux and a spider crab.  These are gifts from Fabrice to thank Nick for a large pack of fishing lures surplus to Nick’s requirements.  Without ado I have to cook all these crustaceans and chill them readying for packing.  With the garden bedded down as best I can manage and the house closed up we drive to Cherbourg and cross the Channel on a ‘Fast Cat’ bound for Portsmouth.

Les Cholseys Rendent Visite

A couple of days after our arrival in St Vaast we are delighted to welcome the arrival of les Cholseys.  They are on half term and we know we will have a great time with them.  Claire is hoping for a leisurely and quiet time which is achieved, by and large, because Sam and his siblings are easily involved in activities revolving around boating, beach excursions and general chilling.  The children, after all, need their down time after a busy first half of Spring Term.  Joel and I have a bit of fun in the kitchen.  Together we make a Turkish dish, Lamb Biryani, which is quite labour intensive, and delicious.  He learns to fillet fish which he and Sam catch with Nick one day, and I watch him make sushi with Carl.

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On Friday night, Claire’s birthday, we have a seafood extravaganza with seafood both bought and foraged from the shore.  During the week Claire and Ty bring their two grandchildren over for a bit of Jenga and high tea.  This is a great success as the children enjoy a few turns of sardines,  a game that transcends all language barriers, as does Jenga.  Amelie and Emma are of similar age and hit it off instantly.  There are hopes that they can all get together again in the summer when they return to St Vaast.