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. 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. 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 albida. 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.