'Is the sea still far, daddy?'
Hey! I've already heard this. My daughter has obviously not changed...
'Look, it is over there, in the distance!'
The horizon is actually the only thing I can show her because there is a long, very long, flat stretch of sand in front of us, bordered with rocks and chalk. This is the spectacle of the high tides along the Alabaster Coast. When the sea is high, the waves lap against the cliff. But when it is low, it becomes a wet desert. The sea takes a break. It takes French leave and leaves the beach empty, revealing its long stretch of golden sand, its frills of white chalk, its lace of sharp rocks and its curls of green seaweed.
'Why is it gone that far? Where does the sea go?'
'It's because of the high tides, Julie. It just means the sea disappears far away...'
'But why? Is it upset?' she insisted.
I think it has to do with the influence of the moon, the equinox and the solstice. In fact, it is not very clear to me either.
'Well, go and see your mother, she probably knows...'
The high tides along the coast of Normandy! What could be better to pick shellfish? After checking the tide tables, we took off for Quiberville-sur-mer, a small, quiet, unassuming seaside resort: from here we can access the tip of the cap d'Ailly, the shellfish pickers' haven.
I carefully prepared our expedition and we were all set for our great fishing day of the year, with our boots and gear: Julie scampered around with a little landing net and bucket in her hand; I brought a knife, a large basket and a hook; my wife, as for her, was equipped with her camera.
And she had found her subject: the impressive blockhouse that fell from the cliff and remained stuck into the pebbles like a meteor since then, dozens of tons of concrete sticking upright!
But here are the rocks, our hunting ground, where our future catches are hiding: mussels, clams, cockles, razor shells and crabs. Things are getting serious now!
I almost felt compassion for those easy and defenceless preys: prawns trapped in our landing nets, shellfish lying still at our mercy, crabs waving their little pincers vainly... But the idea of having a seafood platter for lunch quickly dried my crocodile tears away!
I called out:
'Girls, line up with me! We will search the area methodically! Julie on the right, Clara on the left! Let's go!'
Too late... They were already gone, each in a different direction: Julie chased whatever insect with her landing net, as if chasing butterflies, and Clara was trying to adjust her camera's settings to capture the effect of the wavelets on the sand...
So, it looked like I had to take matters in my own hands and feed this family. After all, I can handle it myself, anyone can do it; the technique is as easy as pie: you just have to lift the rocks surrounded by water and grab the crabs and prawns (the cautious fisherman, as I am, will put back the rock where it was to preserve the natural environment). As for other shellfish and mussels, well, you simply have to bend down and pick them up!
I called out to my daughter to teach her the basics of shellfish picking.
I picked up the first rock: nothing. How unlucky. Second rock: still nothing.
'It happens sometimes... Fishing', I explained to my daughter knowledgeably, 'is all about patience! You'll see, the third one will be the right one. Get your landing net ready, Julie!'
Nothing there either.
No shellfish, what's wrong with this beach?? I've never seen a beach like that before! No matter how many rocks I had turned, there was nothing at all! Hardly one or two prawns that dashed off as soon as I saw them, and it seemed to me they were even laughing!
'Look, Dad!' Julie shouted.
There is an old fisherman, with a weathered face, a fisherman's cap on his head and a heavy basket over the shoulder. As he glanced at my obviously empty basket and disappointed daughter, he gave me a compassionate look.
'He took them all! It's his fault if we don't have any! That's not fair!' she blamed him.
'No, kid, I didn't pick them all! It's just a matter of knowing where to look', he answered.
And as he leaned towards her, he opened his basket.
'Look at this! Do you know what this is?'
'Close! It's a pink prawn, the shrimps are right here. You see, there are much smaller. And far more numerous too', he added while handing one to Julie.
'And this one, do you know what it is?'
'No, these are periwinkles. They are delicious! Here, have one. And this is a clam. Would you like to hold it?'
'Yes, it's true that it's not heavy', she admitted while she weighed the shellfish in her hand... 'But why didn't we find some, then?'
'Oh, they are everywhere here. There are also cockles, large crabs, limpets... Everywhere. But look, you should go and gather mussels over there, they form clusters', he said while showing me the rocks 50 metres away.
'Well, thank you, that is very kind... Quite frankly, I thought it would be easier...'
'Actually, you just need to know the right places. If you want, you can come and see me when you are done, I will tell you what you have caught and we'll check if they are above the legal minimum size with my gauge.'
On the advice of this improvised fishing teacher, I did find beds of mussels where he told us. Unfortunately, the tide was already coming in! Quick, quick! I didn't want to come back empty-handed! On the beach in the distance, Clara and Julie, just like two small signal stations, were waving their arms for me to come back in the dry place.
'So?' Clara asked gently, expecting me to be empty-handed. 'Look what Julie caught!'
My daughter, full of happiness, handed me three little multi-coloured pebbles and a piece of weathered glass...
'Here Daddy, it's for you, to comfort you!'
Looking modest, I half-opened my basket and let them admire the result of my fishing session: enough mussels to make three small pots, and periwinkles, limpets, clams and whelks. Then I took out the centrepiece: a beautiful velvet crab that I proudly grasped with two fingers!
My wife gave me a respectful nod and my daughter looked at me with pride. It was time to go and enjoy all this: the sea was coming in. I turned around for a few seconds to wave to the fisherman who nodded knowingly at me in return. And I promised myself I would keep my little secret safe: what would I have become if he had not discreetly given me much of his own catch?