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Marie had allowed the time it would take to walk out to our hunting ground so we’d arrive about an hour before marée basse (low tide). So had what seemed like the entire population of nearby Saint-Pol-de- Léon. There were people everywhere along the vast sweep of beach; dogs, push-chairs, families, singles, couples, all searching for the same elusive treasure as us…like a Lowry painting without the grime, factories, tenements, and clogs, but you get my point. Our expert set off purposefully, skirting the coast and branching out towards rocks normally submerged, but now exposed by the sea’s retreat. She showed us how to scrape the sand with our rakes to turn up shells just below the surface, “Bon. Quelques coques” (Good. Some cockles) and showed us how to swill out the sand and mud with seawater to separate our catch. We turned up different shells and paused while Marie identified them: palourde – grooved carpet shell clam; bigorneau – winkles; amande de mer – dog cockle; praire – saltwater clam (aka Warty Venus!); lavagnon – peppery furrow shell clam; bulot - whelk. Lots of clams but each subtly different. Small ones were returned to the sand, fatter examples kept. Such is the popularity of Pêche à Pieds that strict regulations are in place regarding what and how much can be taken and when. Information, pocket guides, notice boards, and online sites are readily available, so no excuse for pleading ignorance if the Gendarmes Maritime nab you. Fines of several thousand euros have recently been levied in Finistère. I’d had my head down so when Marie said “Viens. Il est temps de revenir” it was a shock to see the tide coming in. (If you go without a guide, remember to set your phone alarm to allow plenty of time before the tide turns to get back to safety). Back on shore we took stock of our buckets. Lots of clams, a mound of winkles, and whelks. A pretty good harvest for three hours work. But Marie wasn’t content, “Demain, couteau et huîtres” she said firmly. (Tomorrow, razor clams and oysters.) We talked as Marie dealt with the catch: “We relied on fish to live when I was young” she told me as she changed the water in the buckets an hour after our return, mimicking the tide.
Next day we headed for a spot directly beneath Le Pont de la Corde over La Penzé river. Steep banks and thick gloopy mud made the scramble down tricky but Marie soon straightened up with a triumphant grin, holding a huge huître de sabot de chevaux (horse’s hoof oyster). Our buckets filled up with more conventional oysters and juicy palourdes fattened in the rich tidal waters of the river. Then off to Pointe Saint-Jean again for an even lower tide than the day before. “You don’t need your rakes today, but you will need these” said Marie, handing each of us a carton of salt. “I’ll explain when we get to the spot.” “Life was hard in the war, but I still like to catch what I can for free”. She covered the buckets with seaweed. “I will change the water again in the morning, same as the tide. The fish will be fresh for our meal tomorrow night.” We had only one mission left to fulfil: to catch the notoriously elusive razor clam, or couteau (knife), and to do so we needed ratlike cunning, patience, and a carton of salt. No point trying to dig, Marie told us, the couteau just buries itself deep in the sand using its powerful ‘foot’ to pull further and further in. No, once we’d found the ‘volcanoes’ of sand pushed up by the creature squirting water, we must wait, without warning vibrations or sound, until the ‘siphon’ ejected more water, then pour salt on the spot.
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