Wednesday 25 August 2010

Cormorant or Shag?

There was a Cormorant (or Shag) in close on the high tide this morning. We normally only see them far out in the bay but this one was within 20 metres of the shoreline, bobbing gently on a steely-coloured, lightly-rippling sea. It didn't hang around for long: it's large black wings carrying it off across the water using a slow "ground-effect" flying technique similar to that of a Heron.

I can't tell Cormorants and Shags apart. On a grey morning like this morning, even with binoculars, it's hard to pick out the differences. So, I've done a bit of research on Wikipedia and I now think that it's most likely that we have been seeing Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo. They are larger and less uniformly black in their summer plumage than Shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis. There still seems to be some confusion about the naming though, with Phalacrocorax carbo being known as "Great Black Cormorant" in much of Europe but "Black Shag" in New Zealand.

The sun has just burst through the clouds and begun playing clicky-havoc with our black plastic guttering. I might, after all, be able to tackle the expanse of docken-infested fecundity which our lawn has become of late.

I should mention the spectacular very-nearly-full moon we watched last night. At first it was completely masked by clouds but it gradually emerged from the rust/blood-coloured plume to shine onto the bay in all its cold-gleaming glory. We admired it through binoculars before turning the lenses towards Jupiter - the only other naked-eye visible object in the sky last night. We were just able to make out the pinprick of a moon, probably Ganymede.

Friday 20 August 2010

Walking on Samphire

I've called this blog entry "Walking on Samphire" as a pun on the song title "Walking on Sunshine" (geddit?). But it's just occurred to me that I could have had used the geekier title "Walking on Glasswort" as a pun on Iain Banks' "Walking on Glass".

Anyway, either would be approximately correct for the delicious saltmarsh-gleaned treat we had for dinner last evening. The name 'Samphire' is used for a variety of quite different plants which grow around the coastline, all of them edible. The one I was picking was actually Common Glasswort Salicornia Europaea but I think 'Samphire' sounds nicer in culinary terms. You certainly don't see 'Common Glasswort' listed on the menus of many fancy seafood restaurants but that, more often than not, is what the punters will be eating when the dish comes with 'Samphire'.

I've been keeping my eye on a small patch of samphire in a muddy area of the salt flats but, when we were down there at the weekend, my wife noticed that there's actually a huge amount of it down there hidden among the grass. It's just that it was only easy to spot in the muddy areas.

I had bought a large piece of skin-on haddock from our now-faithful fish man and was about to start cooking it when I remembered the samphire. A pleasant five-minute stroll down to the shore brought me back to glasswort El Dorado, equipped with sharp scissors and even-sharper appetite. I gathered a decent bunch, trying to avoid the woodier-stemmed plants. I think it was just past it's best - picking it a few weeks earlier might have meant that the woody stems would not have developed yet.

My wife prepped the samphire by cutting off the stems and washing off the mud. I then steamed it with some butter and seasoning. The cooking took out the bulk of the saltiness, leaving the flavour delicate, if still quite salty, and a little asparagus-like. I pan-fried the haddock and made a simple cream, caper and butter sauce to go along with it.

All in all a delicious midweek treat and excellent use of an unassuming patch of green stuff found in a salty bog. And don't it taste good, yeah, alright....

Monday 16 August 2010

Wading, not Drowning

I have a sunburned nose. It shines like a beacon through this grey and wet day, reminding me of the bask-inducing solar radiance of yesterday.

It was a delightful double-whammy of low tide and warm sunshine. The air temperature was only around 19 degrees but the clarity of the sky and directness of the sunshine made it feel a lot warmer. My wife and I decided to go for a walk/paddle along the shore to cool off.

The sea was relatively warm so I rolled up my trouser legs and waded out quite deep; trekking sandals protecting my feet from the sharp stones and shells which occurred in dense patches. We hadn't intended to forage but the lowness of the tide had revealed much of interest: great patches of greying kelp covered in large wilks; a ripe field of sugar kelp and sea lettuce; a razorfish graveyard crunching and splintering underfoot.

As I approached a sandier patch a flounder shot out from near my foot and torpedoed in a straight line away from me, beaching itself on rocky 'reef'. It played dead and I briefly managed to pick it up but the fakery didn't last long - a few violent flaps and it was into the sea and away. Later on I saw a larger flounder - well worth eating if I could have caught it - with a darker body and strong white markings. They were probably both Platichthys Flesus but I'm really not sure, as the larger one looked so different - in colour and pattern if not in shape.

My wife found a common whelk (bulot) attached to a cockle and sucking the life out of it; gastric slime hanging gruesomely from the deathlocked duo.

I've been determined for some time that there must be clams larger than the tiny Abra Alba somewhere on Gastrobeach. Yesterday I came up trumps. I found half a dozen or so of a couple of different varieties ranging in size from around 40 to 70mm. There are so many different varieties of these 'hard shell clams' that I really don't know exactly which they were. I think the smaller, rounder one might have been a Blunt Tellin Tellina Crassa but it could just as likely have been a Dosinia of some kind. The oval-shaped ones would be even harder to identify: maybe some kind of Spisula.

Regardless of which variety the clams happened to be, they were all very tasty cooked in the smoky heat of our barbecue. A dash of Cajun hot chilli sauce (mostly Scotch Bonnet and Habanero) was the perfect compliment to their salty, vaguely oysterish flavour.

Foraging for food on the shore is easy and fun: just follow your nose. Or mine - you can't miss it right now.

Friday 6 August 2010

Rubber Bulots

Now wending our way from sunny Normandy back to the reliable saturation of the west coast of Scotland.

Among our prized collection of French foodie goodies is a tin of escargot. I'm looking forward to trying these and comparing to the bulots I had shortly before we left France. Bulots aren't really Dog Whelks (muricidae) as I had previously thought but are actually buccinidae, specifically buccinum undatum, which are really just Common Whelks. I have eaten bulots before, last time we were in France, but I was somehow more aware this time of the strangeness of the experience.

Bulots do have a lovely sweet seafoody flavour but the texture takes a bit of getting used to and, because they are quite large, there is a lot of texture to get your gob around. The can also be tricky to get out of the shell whole - this didn't bother my brother-in-law, as he doesn't much like the darker-coloured "skooshy" bit at the end - but I'm quite partial to it. All my own attempts to retrieve a whole one failed, despite the useful tool provided to me for the purpose. But the lack of total extraction wasn't a detraction from the molluscular experience.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Moules Frites and Marmite

Normandy is a gastroperson's delight. We've eaten al fresco every night: delicious barbecued meat and poultry along with fresh vegetables such as courgettes and french beans from the garden. The temperature has been hitting 30 degrees during the day and sustaining 18-20 even into the grasshopper-chirruping, starry-skied nights. Good red wine has not been hard to come by.

We've also eaten out (as in out out) a couple of times. Last night I had a superb pot of a kind of creamy seafood stew/chowder called 'Marmitte'. I say 'chowder' but Marmitte is really much too rich and thick to be classed a soup. We think it was made of a scallop stock bechamel base along with a great deal of garlic, cheese, cream and spinach. To this sumptuous (and extremely hot) concoction chunks of salmon and white fish were added.

Today we had lunch in a beautiful and typically-French-looking historic village a few miles from here. Our host at the local relais was also typically-French-looking, and sounding: great Gallic lungs threatening his wrath if we didn't partake of and enjoy every morsel of his fare. There we ate moules frites - also typically French. The first time my sister mentioned moules frites I thought it must be something to do with fried mussels but it's actually just what it sounds like: mussels with chips. Somehow it works - the tasty and crunchy frites are perfect for dunking in the liquor from the moules. Others in our group ate boudin noir - a very rich French black pudding - along with slices of apple.

Tonight we'll be tucking into cuisses de grenouille - frogs legs. Most of us have never tried them before but I reckon that a day of doing all this typically French stuff just wouldn't be complete without munching on a bit of unfortunate amphibian.