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a newcomer’s trail of exploration on the beaches and shores of her patch of the French Channel coastline


  • 1. or, a newcomers trail of exploration on the beaches and shores of her patch ofthe French Channel coastline

2. Big thanks to companionson the shore, and to PaulChambers, John LlewellynJones, Richard Lord, BasPayne, Ben Rowson, SteveWilkinson for use of theirphotos 3. A website where a person writes regularlyabout recent events or a particular topic,sometimes with new information addedevery few minutes as events happen, andwith the opportunity for readers to send intheir own comments and opinions.(coined in 1997 as a weblog, from whichthe phrase we blog was derived.) 4. My patch extends from Cherbourg east along the north Cotentin coast and south to St Vaast LaHougue which is at the north end of Utah Beach. There are rocky shores and sandy bays. 5. As I coast up the shallow slopes of dreamworld the unmistakable sound of tractors passing thehouse seeps into my consciousness. The oystermen are on their way to work. I find it pleasingthat I can enjoy the friendly sound of a tractor, hinting at provender and productivity. Its nothorticulture but aquaculture of oysters and mussels, in the waters off St Vaast La Hougue. 6. St Vaast La Hougue is the cradle of the Normandy oyster. It is the towns most importantindustry with 250 hectares of shore given over to oyster farming, yielding 6,500 tons per year 7. As the tide ebbs an expansive area of shore is exposed. In the early days oysters were simplyfished from natural beds and then gradually a degree of management of stocks came about bystoring oysters over the intermittently accessible foreshore. It was noticed that young oysterswere settling on adult shells and thus evolved a more structured approach to oyster-farming. 8. The tide goes out, the tractors access the shore. They bring sacks of oysters from the depotback to the shore, and others will be taken back to the depot. Sacks are moved up and down theshore; those ready for market are brought inshore and secured to readily accessible trestles.Oysters needing more time to grow are taken to trestles low on the shore where they willexperience longer periods of submersion to feed, filtering plankton from seawater. 9. There is a continual traffic with as many as 30 or 40 tractors moving the oyster sacks around theshore. Sacks of oysters taken away at the end of the low tide will be sorted, graded and oystersthat are cemented together will be knocked apart. As oysters grow they must be rebagged. 10. Ready for market 11. And once the tide turns that is the days work done. Tractors may linger until the last minute,working the vestiges of exposed shore until the rising tide forces them back onto dry land. 12. When you get good spat-falls the hard substrates around the oyster park are colonised byoysters which cement themselves to the rocks. Whilst pilfering from sacks is strictly forbiddenthe public may gather escapees by knocking them off the rocks with chisels and hammers. 13. Empty sacks like this are not an uncommon sight on the beaches, especially after storms.Although sacks are securely attached to trestles inevitably, in very rough weather, some sackshave become detached and are strewn across the beaches. They may get ripped and the oysters,washed out and scattered along the beach. Or they may be plundered although this is illegal. 14. A French poet once wrote I love oysters, its like kissing the sea on the lips. A friend remarkedrather more dispassionately that when she tried an oyster she felt as if she was drowning. 15. Perhaps Jonathan Swift got it right when he said He was a bold man that first ate an oyster. 16. Mussel aquaculture isimportant too. Mussels aresteamed in a marinireliquor in individual pots,which are then brought tothe table. 17. If you like mussels, there is nothing finer for lunch, with a bowl of chips too.. 18. and the cooking liquor is just too fine to waste! 19. On the other side of town there is the north end of the 5-km long Utah Beach 20. Here the foreshore becomes a dumping ground for the shelly waste of the locals, giving rise toan attractive shell pavement of scallop, mussel and oyster shell 21. The outlines of the submerged oyster trestles as they lie west of La Hougue promontory arevisible. This area of muddy sandflats empties out completely at low tide, allowing the oysterfarmers access to manage the stocks. 22. Picture of north end utah beachWith the Vauban tower on the Hougue in the distance, this huge area of cockle flats can beaccessed on any low tide. It is a perfect territory for cockle-fishing. 23. Cockles are very shallow burrowers and often you can find them at the surface of the sand 24. Cockling is an activity to engage the whole family and demonstrates that foraging is fun too 25. Within a short space of time and over a compact area of the shore you can rake up a good haul 26. For Charlie size is important happiness is a long-handledrake. 27. Cockles are not happy out oftheir environment anddeteriorate rapidly. They arelittle purses of sand so needto be cleaned. Left for a fewhours or overnight in saltwater (35g salt/litre) they willpurge themselves of sand.Cook only cockles which snapshut when squeezed, and eatonly cockles which gape openafter cooking. 28. If you are new to the game ideally get hold of acopy of a suitable handbook: Edible Seashore byJohnWright is excellent. Read chapters onForaging Safely and The Rule Book. Before you access the shore feel confident aboutthe weather and the state of the tide. If the substrate underfoot is unstable in any waydont venture out. You need to be aware of any legal constraintswith regard to the shore you are accessing. Be aware of any species of animal or alga that youmay not collect for legal/conservation reasons. 29. Talk to local fishermen/local authorities aboutwater quality. Collect only from obvious clean areas. Use the sensible old adage of avoiding monthsthat lack an r. Give the bivalves time to clean themselves for afew hours in well-aerated salted water. Unless you are sure they are from Category Awaters, always thoroughly cook any shellfish yougather. Check for signs of life before you cook them. 30. For conchologists some of the most interesting mollusc species live in an unlikely habitat. 31. You must look under boulders and slabs of rock at the spring tide high water mark. This zone is 32. The rare looping snail lives in interstitial sediment under rocks where it is dark and damp. It is aRed Data Book species which means it receives protection under Conservation legislation. 33. The sandflats to the south of the oyster park are the focus of foraging activity during springtides, and especially when the Equinox tides coincide with Easter weekend. This tradition isembedded in French coastal culture and is called Pche pied. 34. On a shore with a low gradient the tide goes out a very long way, revealingan expanse of flats which will accommodate a large number of pcheurs. 35. The principal quarry on these sandflats is the razor clam. You need to develop a bit of skill tocollect them. Razor clams lie perpendicular in the sands. You can detect a potential burrow bywatching for spouts of water as you walk over the sediment. Identify the spout hole and thendig rapidly because the mollusc can also dig deep and rapidly with its strong, long foot. 36. Also from these flats you get an assemblage of edible bivalves 37. All you need to dig for clams is the ability to look and learn. We lugged a large garden sieve, afork, spade and rake to the shore. The sieve was too fine for the gravels so we had to dig a holethen search it. To begin with you dig rather randomly and occasionally strike lucky. 38. After a while we noticed siphon holes developing in the sands and gravels as the water drainedaway and the sediments dried out a bit. What we noticed on the shore is that not all the siphonholes were the same size or shape and that we could recognise, perhaps, six differenttypes. With experience we learnt to recognise the siphon holes for the different species of clamwe were finding and then I became confident and would announce before I put spade to sandhow many and what species I would collect! 39. Once you start digging, your hole starts to puddle with water 40. .and you can be very pleased when you find a clam. 41. . and heres a decent haul, composed of species traditionally associated with eating andothers less familiar. All these can be chucked into a paella or pasta dish. Some species weremore abundant than others: Dosinia clams (which are somewhat less tasty than some othertypes) were very plentiful but another species, Gari depressa, was very sparse. . 42. Before we leave the topic of clamming here are some afficionados searching for a particularprey item. 43. Venus verrucosa known locally as le Praire which translates to the Priest 44. The islet of Tatihou lies just offshore, and rather like St Michaels Mount in Cornwall is accessibleon low tides by a causeway. You can see the submerged trace of the causeway running betweenthe oyster trestles. With an area 29 ha. it receives no more than 500 visitors a day at peaktimes. It harbours a bird sanctuary, offers grazing for sheep whose meat is sold by localbutchers. There are some restored historical buildings including one of the famous Vaubanpepperpot towers, and a maritime museum whose exhibitions change every 18 months or so. 45. There is an amphibious boat which plies between the island and the mainland. When the tide isout it is a wheeled vehicle.. 46. ..when the tide is in its a boat. 47. This is one of the 12 fortified buildings designed by the celebrated engineer, Vauban. This andthe other watchtower on the end of La Hougue were built after the French naval defeat in 1692. 48. Looking west to St Vaast La Hougue 49. Looking northeast to Reville and Jonville 50. Looking down onto the lower shore rock