Remembering Alaska, when dinner in the gorse on the Sussex Downs was over, instead of burning the empty foil packets (‘pouches’, as the makers call them) in which it had been cooked and from which it had been eaten, I sealed them carefully in a plastic bag (Alaska grizzlies have an ultra-keen sense of smell), poured myself another wee dram of Laphroaig single malt whisky and read Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary until my eyes got too tired.
It was not the first time I had dined by candlelight in a gorse thicket. When Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond stated a preference for ‘bed in the bush’ he had a point. For the timorous traveller, the chief advantage of gorse over any other kind of boscage is its obvious (though I would contend superficial) inhospitability. Potential predators are discouraged. Anyway, for the ridgeway walker at the eastern end of the South Downs scarcely any choice of cover for a bivouac presents itself: it is gorse or nothing.
I had come no more than 6 or 7 miles from Eastbourne, but my pack was heavy, the climb up out of Jevington had seemed especially demanding and by 4 pm I had had enough. With the sun already low in the sky and my reserves of energy swiftly following it, I scanned the ground ahead for a likely patch. What I sought was a configuration of prickly vegetation in which a deceptively impenetrable margin yields to an inner clearing spacious enough for the erection of a one-man tent. Fortunately, an almost ideal situation awaited me and by the time it was necessary for my 24-hour camper’s candle to be brought into service my establishment was more or less ship-shape and Bristol fashion. It seemed the moment for a dram or two of something to set against the very rapid and potentially insalubrious fall in temperature up there on the Sussex chalk. It was now that I first brought out the flask of Laphroaig
And so to dinner. To confess to having brought little to eat but what was contained in two 3.3 oz packets of freeze-dried food may well invite the scorn of outdoor romantics, but it was not just any old freeze dried food. The year before, following a camping expedition in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska, a packet of Mountain House Beef Almandine and another of Chicken Chop Suey, made in Oregon and purchased in the Four Winds supermarket, Fairbanks, had travelled back to England with me. Moreover, this was not just common or garden Mountain House, which itself is excellent, but a particular product range with the endearing brand name of Woodsy Owl. A couple of centuries ago it was observed that, within reason, the longer the voyage of a cargo of Madeira, the better the wine. I am now able to testify that there is a je ne sais quoi about Woodsy Owl Beef Almandine and Chicken Chop Suey that have travelled to northern Alaska, thence half the world to England and have ‘rested’ (as they say in the wine business) among miscellaneous camping gear in a basement in London SW4 before being consumed on a winter evening on the South Downs.
‘Serving suggestions for main course entrées and meats’, said the solemn legend on the packets. ‘Add boiling water and eat directly from the pouch – no dishes to wash, no cooking required, wait 5 to 10 minutes and enjoy’. It may not sound the sort of thing that the Michelin Red Guide to France would distinguish as being “vaut le détour”; but that evening. both beef and chicken seemed to me not far short of epicurean. Ask which was better and, risking some Mountain House chef’s feelings, I am bound to say the Chicken Chop Suey; but then, I long since came to the conclusion that Chinese cuisine may be the best in the world.
It was after eight when I blew out the candle. Though I started with my shoulders out of the sleeping bag I awoke about midnight, snuggled right down, secured the drawstring of the hood until scarcely even my face was exposed. and was blissfully warm and comfortable. Yet while I slept the Downs were turning white in a heavy frost. So far as I knew, not a woodsy owl had hooted or a grizzly had stirred.
So that’s that for another year. With the superb professionalism of the French traiteurs matched by that of the Circle of Wine Writers’ own Jancis Robinson as she Tweeted her way from the sea bass truffé to the petits fours, (how on earth does anyone manipulate a Blackberry or an Ipad while the Magnums of Meursault and Methuselahs of Montrachet are jostling around the table?) the Paulée de Meursault 2011 passes into Burgundian history.
What time did the world’s best-known lady of wine get to bed last night, or this morning? We may never know. But blog life must go on, and even as the cutlery and crockery in Meursault are carted to the dish washers, and the similes in Sussex are checked for wear and tear, we are indefatigably concerned with future blog postings. Faithful to our declared editorial policy, the majority are most likely to be about France, but there are other riches in store, so that not infrequently there will be more than one item on the menu. There will, be no shortage of wine. Rarely great wine, but always good, honest French wine: wine of ‘character’ encountered on our travels in that greatest of all wine countries.
There will be no wine in our posting on Thursday, 24th November, however. On that day we shall be driving. Accompanied by an American lady, we shall be on our way from Le Touquet in the Pas-de-Calais to Biarritz in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The experience will feature in a moving story entitled ‘The Trouble with Cynthia.’
The coast of Normandy at five o’clock on a grey afternoon. Looking west from the Royal Marine Commando memorial on the cliffs above Port-en-Bessin, I can see offshore at Arromanches the huge concrete blocks that are the remains of the Mulberry artificial harbour built for the allied invasion of 1944. Eastwards, are Omaha Beach of infamous memory and the Pointe-du-Hoc.
It is high tide. Below me, one by one, minute by minute, the trawlers — the chalutiers— which since the very early hours of the morning have been lying alongside the quays of the inner basin, are leaving the port and fanning out into the English-Channel. Some continue until they are lost from view. Others seem to be holding, or moving very slowly, only a few miles distant and I wonder if already they are dredging the ocean floor with their metal rakes and pouch-like nets. Some night very soon they will be back to unload their catches into the great shed where before daylight they will be sold à la criée: by auction. A few hours later the precious shellfish will be displayed on colourful seafood counters all over France.
Coquille Saint-Jacques; pecten maximus; the mollusc immortalised in the 9th century legend of Saint James of Compostella, its fan-shaped shell an enduring pilgrim symbol and a favourite souvenir of many a happy day on the beach, its succulent flesh said by some to be as beneficial for the libido as that of the oyster. At the offices of Normandie Fraîcheur Mer it is impressed upon me by the head of the fishermen and wholesalers cooperative, and the head of quality control, that what I am going to be learning about here in Port-en-Bessin is not just any old coquilles Saint-Jacques, but coquilles Saint-Jacques Red Label, Label Rouge. The difference? Red Label is a distinction awarded by a National Commission for standards in food products, hard to get and jealously guarded. Red Label coquilles must be freshly caught in approved fishing grounds at the most favourable time of the season, rigorously selected from the whole catch by the fishermen themselves and stored flat between catch and auction in order to keep sea water in the shells; all circumstances which decisively affect the wholesomeness and taste.
Quite new to the whole subject, innocently but truthfully, I remark that I had always supposed coquilles Saint-Jacques to be exclusive to Brittany. There is a pained silence; then, politely but firmly: “Monsieur ! Two thirds of France’s entire consumption come from Normandie ! ”. Chastened, I learn that from October to May coquilles Saint-Jacques are the staple livelihood for about 250 local trawlers, each with a crew varying in number from two to four. In summer, the closed season for the shellfish industry, tourism is very important for the likable little town with its pastoral hinterland and sandy beaches, but it would not be a wild exaggeration to say that Port-en-Bessin largely lives off the coquilles.
And the coquilles themselves: what do they live off and how sustainable is a resource which the fisheries of Normandy alone are depleting at the rate of some 10,000 tonnes a year? “Plankton”, says my expert informant, then by way of allaying my environmental concerns cites a body of laws and safeguards in support of an assertion that his industry is one of the most strictly regulated in the world. The catch is limited by season, quantity, zone of activity, regular scientific evaluation of impact on habitat, and so on and so impressively forth. Nevertheless, and as always (cod in the North Sea; tuna in the Mediterranean; whales in the wider world …….) I am left disconcertingly unconvinced as to the ability of the oceans to withstand the unceasing demands made upon them.
There appear to be no such misgivings in Port-en-Bessin. Collected by a guide from the Centre Culturel, I am taken on a tour which includes a lofty hangar where, safe from the keen north wind, a whole team of shipwrights are hammering what I take to be oakum between the planks of a beautifully constructed new trawler. It is curiously comforting to observe that the process of caulking appears to be as it probably has been since Jesus walked on Galilee and that someone or has faith enough in the future of pecten maximus to have commissioned a boat which is going to cost half a million euros.
The boatyard is the last item on my sightseeing tour at the end of a busy morning. Knowing that I am likely to be dining and wining handsomely this evening, I lunch frugally but agreeably with soupe de poisson and a beer at a brasserie facing the inner harbour, then drive to Omaha Beach where the horrific opening scenes in the film “Saving Private Ryan” (though shot in Ireland) were supposed to have taken place. I have been to Omaha twice before. No matter how many times I might come again, the knowledge of what happened here in June 1944 would always overwhelm and appal me. Formal memorials are unobtrusive. Most eloquent, as they are likely to be the most enduring, are the remains of the massive German fortifications from which came the shell and machine-gun fire that were mostly responsible for more than 2,000 American dead in the space of a few hours. Two or three miles offshore is an area where no trawler today would ever let down its dredge. Still intact there, guns pointing landwards, are the Sherman tanks which were supposed to have “swum” ashore to support the infantry, but which went to the bottom with their crews seconds after leaving their cross-Channel transports and entering the sea.
Sombre thoughts do not survive my arrival back at Port-en-Bessin and the delightful 4-star hotel-restaurant La Chenevière on the outskirts of town. Briefed on my current preoccupation, the chef, takes me into his kitchens for a crash course on the preparation and cooking of coquilles Saint-Jacques. Opening them (they are alive, of course) is easier than opening an oyster. Once demonstrated, separating the mollusc from its shell and discarding what small part of it is inedible is simple. Cooking embraces a number of classic methods and recipes, all governed by the ineluctable rule that the coquille is a delicate animal, almost impossible to undercook. To illustrate the point a thin slice is cut from a noix (the white, main part of the coquille) for me to taste raw. It is delectable. So are the Tripoux de Saint-Jacques à la mode de Port-en-Bessin (one of the chef’s specialities) which he makes for the first course of our dinner.
No praise is too high for the sauce beurre blanc which we have with the sea bass. Under instruction, I made that myself.