Of late both lovely sister and Isobel (maman du Princeling) have got interested in puppetry, from a making and performing angle respectively, so last Saturday saw us (Isobel, and I, and betimes Tom, Princeling is too small and has even less patience for sitting still watching puppets than Tom...) taking in the Marionnet'IC festival in Binic.
Lots of stuff, whimsical, quaint, touching, dark, disturbing, traditional, musical, theatre d'objets (object theatre, weird and intriguing but also kind of obvious, commonplace, found, improvised objects enacting things... ).
I think they do a more complex grown-up version, but this one was quite simple. Their characters are somewhere between Spanish processional figures and cartoons (I think), with Mr Punch-type squeaky voices. There was a Moorish fellow,
who had to fight with a bull, rather reluctantly, it seemed.
Then there was Death,
who didn't seem too reluctant to fight with the Moor.
There was a lot of whacking,
and Death got a waggy finger in rebuke.
I can't remember who won, but the children in the front row chortled with glee, and we laughed a bit too.
I've blogged about the château of la Roche-Jagu , where we went a week or so ago, before. It's one of those beautifully rebuilt ancient monuments that they wouldn't do in the UK because such reconstruction is archaeologically incorrect.
(This is a postcard-type shot of the kind I said I didn't do in the 2007 post, which has a link to a site with much better ones.)
But I'm glad they did restore it, as it's really quite magnificent, inside and out. We still like the Crusaders' Garden,
with its palm trees and rills.
But this time I thought to look up, into the delight that was to be found in the structure of palm fronds,
and then saw an echo of this in the inside the building.
I have never been a particularly pink girly, as you may imagine. However, there are some flowers which I think are best in pink (- and some I don't: Japanese anemones, which we only have in pink, are better in white, I believe. Pink forget-me-nots are verging on an abomination...).
Camellias, or camelias as we like to call them, favouring the orthography and pronunciation of Dumas, I like best in light pink, preferably shaded. The red make me think rather of Edam cheese rind or tired Christmas candles and look tawdry when they fade and brown. We only acquired our first camelia this year, it's called Nuccio's Pearl.
It was small but had a couple of flower buds when it came from the nursery, though these have faded and dropped quickly in this strange April drought and heat wave we've been having (I've enjoyed the suhshine and warmth, but now have a sense that enough is enough...). Last week we went to La Roche-Jagu ( that link is to Brittany Tourism's English translation, partly because it has some quite amusing language in it, such as a haughty castle... the one main wing left standing has severe good looks...) which is famed for its camelias and rhododendrons. Needless to say we were rather between the two, but some of the former were still in good shape. I tried not to get too caught up with photographing them, or there's have been no end to it...
There was one very pink rhodo out too, which invited a pic, especially as it had a bee on it.
The other pink flowers which delight me are blossom trees. Blossom trees are just one of those horticultural miracles of impossible generosity, I think. In some ways it seems absurd that we grovel about trying to coax a few flowers out at ground level, when you can have a whole treeful of the things to all the depth and breadth and height which that affords, for really no effort at all - except for waiting for them to grow, of course. We have four blossom trees in a row, two prunus and two malus, and they even have all different colour leaves as well, and fruit in the case of the malus, far more than I can ever use for crab apple jelly.
They go from white with a touch of pink,
to almost red,
and I love them all, but the most photogenic for me this year was the pink prunus with the sprays of flowers.
(Don't ask me what the variety is, I can't remember)
Anyway, no apologies ( which is actually a way of apologising isn't it? I'm sure there's a term for that...) for the effete and sugary nature of this post. Not everything in the garden is rosy of course, but some things are.
This is hardly David Attenborough, I know; it's terribly wobbly, keeping a hand steady enough for this amount of zoom and the camera pointed upward was rather more than I could manage, and the sound quality is only middling. It's also ridiculously high definition and took an age to upload to Youtube - I need to work out how to shrink videos, or how to quickly adjust the camera settings so they don't come out so enormous.
But for all that, I am nevetheless quite pleased with the capture. We must have had these little chaps around before, I think I've heard the song and Tom says he saw one at the bird table in the winter, but I've never been aware of them so present and visible in the garden, nor been able to get such a sustained view of one while I had the camera with me. I've heard the blackcap is sometimes known as the northern nightingale, which may be a somewhat grandiose claim, but he's certainly putting his heart into it.
(There are some better videos of blackcaps and other warblers available alongside on Youtube if you care to follow them. My other nature nerd activities of late have revolved around a colony of very small mining bees and their cleptoparasitic cohorts, but they're really too small to photograph, so I'll spare you this year's insect obsession, though they are more endearing than hornets...)
Gardening inevitably means displacing. The order which we are little by little, two-forward-one back, achieving, the battle against weeds and pests in which we seem of late to be making some gains, will always push something out, though one hope it also creates space and opportunity for something else.
The black polythene which we use fairly freely to tame unruly bits of ground we can't cope with at a given time, never seems to me to be very friendly towards wildlife, yet when I cleared one length of it away in order to green the soil it had covered, along with the stone holding it down which had evidently served as a thrush's anvil, bejewelled with fragments of russet and yellow stones, the enormous fat shiny millipede that wriggled off, and the large greenish black toad which glared at me with its coppery eyes before shuffling backwards into a hole in the ground, there were these remains of someone's larder, a vole or field mouse. The shells all seemed to be holed and empty.
I'm afraid they rather put me in mind of ossuaries!
Stinging nettles are good for butterflies, of course, and I too, find it hard to see a patch of their tender, juicy, formic acid bearing spring tops without fancying a bowlful of nettle soup. Fortunately, though it is much reduced, there is still a healthy little stand of them in one corner.
I love nettle soup, collecting the nettles, making it, eating it, the whole matter of getting one over on something that wants to get one over on me, dodging the stings, wearing rubber gloves to pick them, washing them at arm's length, then plunging them into boiling water and neutralising their mischief.
I used also to enjoy the shock factor of telling people I ate stinging nettles, but I gather nettle soup, (and foraged wild food in general, which used to confer a pleasing impression of eccentricity and boldness upon those of us who enjoyed it) has now become quite trendy. My youngest brother, who betimes indulges in a bit of fashionable restaurant eating in the UK, went last year to a much vaunted eatery somewhere in the West Country, where he was served (along with deep fried sand eels, which it seems to me would be robbing the puffins...) nettle soup with snails in. Whether this was intentional or simply because they omitted to wash the snails off before preparing it I don't know.
The days are sunny and bright, the evenings long and light, the mornings simply ravishing, and, thanks to Tom's labours, the garden has suddenly grown into the beauty it has always promised. Spare time really doesn't want to be spent indoors in front of the computer, so, though I'm taking photographs a-plenty, I'm not doing much with them. I always tend to feel that blog pictures, like fruit and veg, should be fresh and seasonal, but if you don't mind seeing spring flowers for November's daily postings, I might get around to sorting some more of them out...
Last week it was brown shrimps, crevettes grises as they are rather unattractively called in French. This week, emboldened by the delight of Friday night seafood suppers, things in shells with brown bread and butter washed down with white wine, I bought a bagful of winkles, bigorneaux, from the fish van.
Winkles were one of my maternal grandfather's favourite foods. He was a Norwich man, it was said that if you walked down the streets of Norwich on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the house doors and windows were open, you could hear the rattle of the winkles being poured onto plates. He was also a great sea and fly fisherman, and a racing cyclist, quite a star in his day - the very early years of the 20th century. We all, in my family, still have silverware and other treasures that he won. I never knew him. What, I asked my mum, did winkles taste like? More or less of the salt and pepper and vinegar he put on them, she said.
They feature, of course, on the big fancy platters of fruits de mer, every kind of seafood served on crushed ice in restaurants or ordered specially and taken home to form the centrepiece of the Christmas or New Year's Eve late night meal in these parts. I have to say I never fancy these; the idea of chill winter evenings of protracted festivities, eating cold seafood off crushed ice, makes me feel shivery and tired just to think about. Festive food for winter should, to my mind, be hot and rich and spicy, not chilly and slippery.
So somehow, the years of my life rolled by and though at one time or another I tried cockles and whelks and clams, and of course mussels and oysters, I never got around to eating winkles. That is until a bit over a year ago, at young Anaïs's leaving do with her family before she headed off to Mexico for a university exchange year, when Grandad came up from Loctudy in south Finistere with a huge quantity of very small winkles as his contribution to the feast which were passed round the assembled gathering before dinner in a single big dish. There were a pile of wooden cocktail sticks, and one or two pins to get them out of the shells. Tom showed me how; they'd been a regular teatime feature of his east London childhood too, though he'd not had them for a very long time. The small wiggly grey things didn't look too appetising, but they tasted good, and the real pleasure was in the conviviality: old folks and children and cool teenagers with their heads together nattering while twizzling the little shellfish out of their spiral shells at impressive speed, a mobile, shared focus of food and reminiscence.
'Hey, Lucy' asked Jean-Jacques, 'is it right that the English word for bigorneau is a word for a little boy's zizi?'
I confirmed this, having mentioned it to Anais about five years previously, when it had amused her greatly; obviously something of all those English lessons went in.
Then in our visits to Finistère over the last year or so, winkles have often been part of of the plates of seafood which we've shared in places like the Café du Port at Le Dourduff, warm and busy with wooden tables and paper menus for mats. So why not, I thought, buy some on my foray to the fish van of a Friday lunchtime, along with some big pink prawns - no brown shrimps available today - and have them at home?
I peeled the prawns, and deveined them (which French acquaintances in particular think I'm bonkers to do, along with de-choking artichokes before I serve them - do I have too much time on my hands or something?), spread the brown bread and butter, dolloped out some fish rillettes on the side and made up some garlic mayonnaise. I put the winkles in their own little bowls and we sat down to eat. I put out cocktail sticks. The first winkle I poked didn't seem to have anything in it I could get at. I picked up another. Tom looked up from his.
'It just went back into its shell,' he said balefully 'they're still alive.'
I took them away quickly and we made do with the prawns and rillettes.
After supper, I looked them up in Jenny Baker's Simply Fish , one of those books the internet will never replace despite its showing its age, being yellowed and food-spattered and containing far too many recipes involving tinned tomatoes. It's out of print now, and too old-fashioned to merit a reprint, but the format is simple and not to be bettered for information - each fish, shellfish, marine arthropod or crustacean is listed alphabetically with the same headings for all of them, including 'How sold' and 'Ask fishmonger'. Under the first heading for winkles it said 'Cooked', under the second 'Whether they are alive or cooked'. The first response went some way towards mitigating my sense of stupidity about not doing the second.
Following the instructions I found there, I put them in a bowl of salted water to clean, which I changed a couple of times, and left them for the next day.
Winkles must be nocturnal, the only time they showed signs of being active was when I came down first thing the next morning, and some of them were emerging slightly from their shells, and one or two had fixed themselves to the side of the bowl, but still under the water. Could have been worse, in one on-line forum I read about preparing shellfish, someone told a tale about leaving some whelks in the sink to clean overnight and how they were picking them off the kitchen tiles and surfaces for days afterwards. Even so, I felt a qualm or two, and momentarily entertained the notion, since we were heading up toward the coast that day anyway, of taking them with us and liberating them in a rockpool somewhere.
But I rapped myself over the knuckles and told myself not to be idiotic and a wretched hypocrite. Someone had spent precious time gathering these, a fact which had been reflected in the price, and I frequently eat far more sophisticated creatures without worrying when someone else has killed them for me. So I changed the water a couple more times, then prepared a court bouillon with water and white wine, a clove of garlic, salt, a bay leaf and half a lemon, dropped them into it, and brought it to the boil. After a few minutes I tested one or two, then drained and cooled them.
More garlic mayo, this time with a spoonful of sun-dried tomato paste in it, and one of Tartapain's wonderful light, oily, crustyguilettes. I raided the sewing box for the cutlery.
Absolutely delicious. I shall buy and cook them again. For two pins, I'd go foraging and collect them myself.
Well, it was something of a blinder. How many people would be readily able to answer the question
What promises have you to give? Or give up on? Or break?
I fiddle-faffed about and made many a false start, none of them really felt right or honest. By that I don't mean confessionally, gut- or bean-spillingly honest about Me and My Life, which, as we all know (don't we, sisters and brothers?), is no kind of pre-requisite to writing anything worthwhile at all. Just feeling truthful, not histrionic or false or self-conscious or whatever. And I wondered if perhaps I'd really been pretty much bowled out this time and perhaps it was the moment to declare and call it a day.
Then one day last week Molly got me up too early to make tea and too late to go back to sleep, and, as I hoped might happen, I more or less sat down and wrote a response in about half an hour (not including reworking and consultation). It's quite possibly flippant and jog-trot and not Serious Poetry at all, but funnily enough I'm remarkably proud of it, not least because I achieved a single B-rhyme through six verses (that's twelve rhymes) without a single repetition (unless you count 'new' and 'knew', which I suppose you should), and a changing intermediate rhyme which includes 'count on' and 'mountain', which isn't quite as cheekliy virtuoso as Geoffrey Hill's 'acrostics' and 'joss sticks' but is fairly bare-arsed...
Anyway, whether or not you've a clue what I'm talking about (it's Friday night after all, I'm a couple of glasses of wine down and you're probably not there at all), I've posted a new response poem in answer to Plutarch's question at Compasses. Go read.
From this place on sand as fine as ash there is only the incomprehensible West
( Dick Jones, Inch strand)
After Belle-Île-en-Terre the road is rougher concrete and patched, deeply edged with gorse and birches. Looking across
to the further hillside, the soft points of pine,
the purpling of spring branches - like feathers,
you say, and full of colour. Something settles.
At some point we always leave the quatre-voies,
and join, for a short way, the old national road,
running parallel, crossing, merging and vanishing,
its crosses and chapels, ribboning villages,
the slower past, faint and broken over the faster new,
to walk the dog or picnic on the dashboard
by the side of the road or near the top of Menez Bré.
We bring our grief here. Sometimes it's so large
we can barely find room for it, sometimes
we didn't even know we had it with us,
but find it later when we get here.
Did we think we could float it out for good
onto the waters of the wide blue bay?
Spattered red camelia, flash yellow daffodils, scrambled egg daffodils,
big light daffodils standing out of plantings of dark purple heather
along the road by Carantec. The foaming mimosa trees towering
and a single fruit from last year's passion flower vine left,
mishapen, forlorn, on the stone path. Too early still
for the curds of blackthorn blossom thickening the hedges,
the violets and bluebells in the fields.
A witches' sabbath of tormented oaks lean
above the cliff path, their ivy succubi
making a mocking simulacrum of the spring
green the trees themselves hold back, whether
announcing soak or splash, predicting rain
like seaweed, bladder wrack - the one with bubbles in, you know, my son-in-law, the fisherman, goes gathering it at Christmas and sells it to the restaurants, for garnishing the fruits de mer. Five tonnes of it he got!
A harvest free of duty, extra to the real
and meaty matter of the world.
We look more closely at our plates of oysters.
Wide and blue the bay lies in memory, but, in truth
the mudflats are more of it, sludged and sombre
riven with watercourses, sculpted with channels,
a veinous life of water under water we didn't know was there
(how could we know?), streaked with the calls of curlews,
oystercatchers, patterned with shelduck, stitched with the probing
mismatched pallid feet of egrets.
Low tide uncovers the causeway at last, we get out and walk
on the sea bed, so the sandy tuffets of dry land stand above our heads,
to the chapel, where the votive boats ride at anchor in the beams
over a ripple of candles, and the boiled sweet colours of the windows
pave the flagstones, and two crosses hang in air.
Crop enough stone from the ground for twenty years
and you can build a house, in maybe three or four.
(For sure, she snorts with pride, all the madmen aren't in hospital!)
Dig a great hole so the ground yawns and howls,
then build over it. We rounded the corner and gasped,
nearly drove into it.
The one way mirrored glass in the door hides us, allows
our looking out without exposure, might soften
a hurting glare, yet makes the diffident sunlight
into greyness and lowering cloud. I suppose
you can't have it both ways.
Weariness hurts you, you mourn lost strength.
We park in the town square, eat banana sandwiches
as usual, while pale lemon pansies look wanly up
from beds of manufactured shingle, and a youth
glowers by a granite wall. It is permissable, we affirm
aloud, to feel discomforted, oppressed
at being human, at being here at all.
You fear not returning to the shelter,
the branches, the majesty of the tree of life, about
the algal bloom, the lichenous and woolly growth
the facile, creeping stems that seem to smother it.
I fear that I'm an empty, thinning oyster shell,
worn by the turning tides and by grit I can't enclose
within a mucillagenous and nacreous self
to make a pearl.
We sit cross-legged on the bed
our heads and mouths full of stone carvings,
rotting churches, landlocked hostility and wine,
drawing close enough to get a sidelong look,
and something of the measure of these things.
Stained with homesickness we check with each other,
finding it means different things which, in turn,
create a balance . So we turn homeward,
meeting each other half way. Why then
make a love song to a place I'll never know?
We bring our grief here,
and take it home again. Only perhaps
with a less vague idea of its shape and size;
it continues, shoals and currents under
the advancing and retreating tides.