French people love their fruits de mer or fruits of the sea! When sun, moon, and earth are aligned just so, exceptionally high and low tides, called les grandes marées, cause the sea to retreat like a turtle into its shell, leaving the ocean floor drained and perfect for a little pêche à pied, or fishing-on-foot, a longstanding Normandy pastime.
When we first moved here, of course, we knew the sea was quite close to our house (under 5 miles) but we could never really find it, until one day, we were there at the right time and the water was suddenly incredibly close and high. Only then did we realize just how drastic these tides are! To give an example, the Bay of Mont St. Michel has the highest tides in the world with up to 50 feet (15 meters) difference between high and low.
We also took note of the scores of people descending on the sandy beach with rakes, buckets, and creels, navigating the seabed just so, weaving left for 100 yards, then a sharp right for 50, only to turn again going further and further towards water’s edge. They follow a set path along the seabed because there is quicksand and they wear a sort of slipper rather than boots. Then they rake, dig, and scratch to collect shellfish, shrimp, lobster, crabs, oysters, mussels, and even fish like sole.
The tradition is a beloved family hobby. Recently, I spoke with a very nice gentleman, whose name I didn’t ask (Je suis très désolé! I am very sorry!), who explained much more about it and even did some scratching in the sand to find a coque to demonstrate what they look like and how big they are supposed to be.
Foot-fishing is regulated and enforced. There are limits per species, not only on how much can be harvested but also on the minimum sizes. Police, customs, and other officials carry out raids and when they do, there is always enough presence to check every last bucket and basket. The fines for taking too much or not throwing back the shellfish that are too small, or for taking more than what a household would need for one or two meals, are mush more than the price of two buckets-full of whelks!
Our friend also explained how to cook les coques. They are left in a bucket with fresh water and salt for 24 hours, which cleans them of dirt and silt. Then they are drained, rinsed, and thrown into a pot with the lid on to cook without anything else added for about 5 minutes. The shells pop open when they’re ready, then they’re tossed with some pasta, salt, and pepper and served with white wine and un pain (French bread).The large objects in the sea are two islands with forts dating back to the 17th century, now bird estuaries with no access allowed.
Our favorite time of day to take the dogs to the beach is at low tide. Like us, they sit quietly to drink it all in. They love exploring the seabed and lift their noses into the aromatic broadcast of the marsh. Even though our Lillie has embraced her own idea of foot fishing, we don’t otherwise participate. My husband won’t eat any of it and having a mussel allergy, I prefer not to experiment with mollusk species.
But we have learned to appreciate this beautiful tradition. It’s great people watching! As the Normandy people work en famille to collect the next day’s meal, they are chatty and joyful. I can picture that same joy around the dinner table where they share in the memory of the hunt, and the cornucopia of fresh fruits de mer on their plate.
Meanwhile, the sun has set on their fishing hole and the tides have rushed in to erase any trace of furrows. But the shores are not empty. Fishermen have been replaced by photographers who quite tenderly capture the scenery into an embrace, not just freezing the moment, but completing the creative spirit. The cycle of ebb and flow is a truly marvelous phenomenon.
And to newcomers like us, the tides fill a blank canvas with the broadest of brush strokes, painting the image of a culture living harmoniously with nature.
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