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.