BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
The Wilder Shores
By Jane Labous
Producer: Polly Hope
Introduced by Kate Adie
Jane Labous reflects on the splendid September spectacle of gathering shell-fish on the Normandy shores - and the colourful characters who do it.
They come armed with buckets, rakes and little pronged trowels, fishing nets balanced on their shoulders, marching out with the tide towards the horizon. They wear wellingtons and jelly sandals, windcheaters and straw hats, setting to work where the disappearing sea leaves the sand mirroring the clouds. Silhouetted against the slices of silvery land and light and the lilac water slashed with the dark ribbons of the mussel beds, the hundreds of tiny figures might be seagulls picking for food.
These are the pêcheurs à pieds, fisher folk on foot. They come to St Martin in Normandie to hunt for shellfish during the annual grandes marées that characterise this breezy Atlantic peninsula. The giant September tides send the sea rolling back for up to five miles, like a woman taking off her clothes, revealing the treasures of the naked sea bed beneath; tiny green crabs called étrilles; winkles and mussels clinging in the rock pools; grey shrimps and miniature flat fish hidden in the seaweed, and the much-prized palourdes, almond-shaped clams, snuggled beneath the sand.
Monsieur Alex is a retired civil servant from St Père, bent double in a big green waterproof, a wicker basket slung on his back. He’s raking for palourdes. ‘Absolument, little lady,’ he chuckles in his country way when I enquire whether he’s found anything. ‘Sometimes I get them as big as this-.‘ He traces his palm gleefully. ‘You add butter, garlic and shallots, and stick in the oven. Delicious!’
There's Madame Hagneau - ‘with an H’, she exclaims; snow-haired in anorak and rock-pooling shoes, her reflection shimmering in the seaweedy sand as she rakes. ‘It’s so beautiful here,’ she says, standing up and stretching her back. ‘I come to relax and catch a bit of supper.’ Nearby is Hubert, collecting palourdes, mussels and winkles. ‘People come from miles around, mainly retired folk with time to spare. We love it,’ he confesses. ‘It's healthy and you get to eat what you find!’
They come not just for their supper – although this, make no mistake, is the most important thing - but to walk, take the air, relax, explains Jean Paul, an elderly local farmer with a bristling moustache and a rather alarming-looking hoe. ‘Tonight we’ll wash the mussels one by one, cook them with butter and serve to the family,’ he adds earnestly, with a protective glance at his basket as I peer inside.
This wild place of sea and sky washed with piercing light, of dune grasses and salt marshes dotted with samphire and sheep, has been the home of my family for more than a century. My great grandmother, Grandmère Eugénie, a buxom Norman matriarch who in the old black and white photographs wears headscarfs and a shrewd peasant smile, went out collecting étrilles in the fifties, flaming them afterwards in calvados on the stove.
Nowadays we still gather to eat the spindly crabs’ legs yielding a few millimetres of meat, swapping stories passed down through generations of the immense tides that come back with the speed of a galloping horse. Even now I stick close to my father when we walk out to explore the seabed, imagining the sea bolting in, the foaming tails of the whitecaps and the roar of the ocean engulfing everything, everyone, in its path.
Though modernity is intruding here, it’s for the better. Local fishing authorities have limited the foot-fishing catch to 100 shellfish per person, per day to protect the area’s eco-system. Sometimes the gendarmes appear, bantering as they count people’s hauls, and nobody seems to mind. ‘Bon, bah, it's not a problem,’ shrugs Monsieur Alex. ‘A hundred is plenty for dinner, non?’
Yves, a retired patissier, is crawling commando-style across the sand. ‘See I'm a real fisherman, down on my hands and knees,’ he chortles, showing me a special plastic guard he wears on his fingers to help him dig. ‘I've travelled to many places, but this is the loveliest in the world. It's a veritable garden.’
A while later, the acres of beach fill with the lustrous green and blue gradations of the sea, as if an impressionist artist is deftly painting in the canvas. The people straggle up clutching their heaped baskets. I turn back towards home with an end of the summer sort of feeling, thinking of Grandmère and the fisher folk from times past, present and future hiking back and forth with the sea. In all likelihood, this scene will happen again tomorrow, and so on every September for generations to come, long after we’re all gone, according to the rhythm of the moon and the infinite tides.