Food, Glorious Food!

Fresh scallops at the Dinard daily market

While my friends at home are celebrating Thanksgiving this week, it seemed like a good time to discuss eating. We spend most of our days and all of our evenings indoors due to our confinement, so cooking has taken on outsized importance in our daily lives. Happily we are living in a spot where there are many options when it comes to shopping for food products. We have more or less given up super markets.

This morning was crisp and clear and we had a wonderful time at the market shopping for supplies. Since we have been mandated to leave the house only for an hour of exercise, or to shop (for an indeterminate amount of time), going to the marché is about the biggest entertainment we have, so why rush through it? We took our sweet time. There is so much to see and appreciate.

The Dinard market is renowned for its selection and quality. The first time we saw it, we swooned. We have been to some very nice markets in France, and this one can rival any of them. It offers so much, and features only food. Often French markets have a lot of stalls with clothes and doodads which for me really takes away from the pure experience. This one is open every morning except Monday and has indoor and outdoor stalls. Today we bought some sourdough bread baked in a wood fired oven and covered with pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and poppy seeds. We got some salmon pâté and some gorgeous fresh tomato spread.

Of course there is almost every kind of fresh fish you can think of for sale at the market. We bought some swordfish one day, as this is the season and made a delicious meal with ginger and garlic. I had the urge a week or two later to make ceviche. The fish monger sold us some beautiful sea bass and prepared it for us perfectly, removing all the scales and bones with his special knives. We enjoyed watching him ply his craft. The fish is “cooked” in lime juice and the result was definitely memorable.

We were here for several weeks before we discovered the Grand Frais, which is something like a warehouse of every kind of food you could ever imagine. It’s enormous and offers produce that we can’t find anywhere else, such as Asian greens. The volume is overwhelming and the quality impressive.

The tomatoes pictured below are just one example. They look like cherries, and come in every color, shape and size you could ever want.

For Rick’s birthday, earlier this month, I made salmon cakes and salad with smokey egg plant dressing. It went over well.

Another evening we made a mushroom lasagna which took us about 4 hours to put together and about 15 minutes to eat. It was spectacularly good. Since it was far too much for the two of us, we ate a third and froze the other 2/3rds, so our return on investment won’t be quite so dismal as it seemed at first.

Here are a few other recipes we’ve tried: shitake mushroom and spinach, ramen noodle soup and teriyaki salmon bowl. All recommended.

I have been reading a series of murder mysteries that take place in Brittany, written by Jean-Luc Bannalec. They are full of interesting facts about Breton history, geography and culture. The Missing Corpse takes place in Pont Belon, home to some of the most famous oyster beds in the world. I have just read that oysters are considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Even the Ancient Romans understood the medicinal benefits of these delicate little creatures. In my book a doctor puts the main character, detective Dupin, on an oyster diet, which involves eating 36 a day, 12 oysters at each meal. Oysters are the best source of zinc that there is. Zinc has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and plays a significant role in many metabolic processes. It’s helpful to the immune system, protein synthesis and growth in general. Oysters contain an array of nutrients and vitamins, while having absolutely no fat or carbohydrates. All 20 amino acids are contained in an oyster. Last, but not least, they also contain dopamine, which explains why I always feel so good after consuming a plate full.

We hadn’t eaten any oysters at all since moving to the coast, which when I think about it is crazy. I love oysters. We usually save them for holidays and special occasions, but why? They are available in profusion, at every market and on street corners throughout the city. My book convinced me we had to change our way of thinking about this topic and avail ourselves more frequently of this fresh local delicacy.

Today at the market we bought a dozen of the number 3s for a grand total of 6€. We intend to try the many different vendors and varieties on offer. These ones, we were told, are from the Cap Fréhel, just down the road to the west. The man who sold them said they were harvested at the foot of the castle there. I loved having this precision. He opened one for us to show us how beautiful it was inside and how clear the liquor. He knocked each one against another as he put them in our bag. The solid clacking sound proved that each one was healthy and fresh.

It’s lucky for us that we have such lovely shopping options because we go almost every day to gather our ingredients. Since we live in a seasonal rental apartment, the refrigerator is about the size of a large suitcase. I repeat myself when I say that food shopping, and the resulting good eating, has become one of our greatest pleasures in this life.

The Sea Giveth and the Sea Taketh Away

Have you been following the cycles of the moon? I certainly didn’t while we lived in other locations, but here one can’t escape the influence the moon has upon the environment. We had a new moon this week and with it came the usual high coefficient, in other words we had some very low and some very high tides for a few days. That dead planet in the night sky exerts a huge gravitational influence on the water at our feet.

It was a long walk to the water line. It had receded so much, that one could almost imagine walking to St. Malo. And one could definitely walk into downtown Dinard on the beach which is normally not possible at all, as there are cliffs which separate the various Dinard beaches from one another.

Of course at low tide one can find attractive little treasures.

From top and right to left: unidentified shell with five growth ridges, unidentified attractive purple variegated shell, three limpet shells (little cones), beach glass (broken bottle top made completely smooth), two red cockle shells, back and front of a scallop shell.

High tide was quite dramatic. Waves crashed against the wall and sprayed water onto the lower garden. That occurred after dark, so I was not able to get a photograph.

In the morning we discovered that a night of pounding surf was able to wash away at least six feet of sand from our beach front. The level of sand a day before was to the bottom step of our stairway. I conservatively calculated that about 1000 tons of sand was swept away over night.

Our neighbor tells us that we ain’t seen nothing yet. The waves were very tame by coming winter storm standards. I wonder if we’ll have any sand left at all by springtime. Apparently this displacement occurs every year. Next spring the city will bring bulldozers down to the beach and return sand to its normal level. I guess that means it will be awhile before I use these steps again.

I checked to see how much the ocean has risen in the last hundred years, so I could understand if this phenomenon was happening when the house was built. I found out that a century ago the ocean was only 8-10 inches lower, which I can’t imagine could make such a difference.

Another charming gift received this week was a view out our window of a brand new sailing freighter, built locally, and leaving St Malo harbor bound for New York with 14,000 bottles of French wine on board. Our friend Bernard, who descends from several generations of Breton sailors and keeps up with such things, alerted us to its schedule. One can monitor all ocean going vessels in real time on marinetraffic.com. The ship, called Grain de Sail (a play on words), has a crew of only four. After dropping off their cargo, they sail for Central America to fill their holds with cocoa and coffee before sailing back home.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Rick noticed that we have some new residents in town. At first he saw them bobbing on the waves and took them for ducks, as they are rather small. Once we observed them on shore, however, it was clear they are geese. We identified them as Brant geese that have just arrived for the winter from the Arctic, where they mate and rear their chicks from late spring. They make a nice addition to the ecosystem.

Humans and Other Interesting Creatures

Even though we are in the middle of a new adventure, in a place and in an environment we have never lived, we find ourselves falling into habits. We get up at more or less the same time each day, we sit down in the same chairs for coffee, we follow a similar routine. It is natural to fall into patterns.

While we follow our new morning rituals, we have been able to observe someone else’s. Every day, as we sit at our window sipping coffee, we get to watch the same interesting drama play itself out. First, a man and his two collies, one tan and white, the other black and white, come down the main St. Enogat steps onto the beach. The man lets the two dogs off their leashes and the tan one makes a dash towards the edge of the surf, right under our window. Every morning, without fail, he barks at the tide as he chases it in and out, back and forth, occasionally biting at the water. His companion dog, the black one, stays glued to his master’s side as the two of them wait and watch. The human is an attractive older man, always dressed in red pants, blue boots and jacket, a knit cap and a black face mask.

The black collie has only three legs and so he rocks as he follows his master. The tan dog also has a kind of rocking gait, which at first I thought was possibly a learned behavior or a gesture of solidarity, but when I once saw him up close, I noticed that his two back legs work as one. These creatures, all three of them, have found a place in our hearts and in our own morning program. Their distance company on the beach marks the beginning of our day. We also see them in the afternoon and in town.

Of course as time goes along, we get to know, at least by sight, the other characters who make their daily visit to the shore. There is the elderly and rather overweight gentleman who runs up and down the beach several times in the afternoon, impressively pushing himself forward as he huffs and puffs. There are the two women who, dressed in wet suits, walk through the water from east to west, talking as they ambulate. There are kite flyers, boogie boarders and some who swim even in chilly weather. Mostly, like us, there are the mask-wearing bundled up couples who enjoy their stroll while watching the rhythm of the waves.

We often see what I would like to call an entire herd of oyster catchers, the black and white sea birds with long orange beaks and legs that frequent the local beaches. They always arrive in a mass and each one takes up his post. They all stand perfectly still, perhaps listening or feeling some vibration. Then they peck away at the sand below their feet to find a tasty burrowing morsel. After a few minutes they all disappear together.


During very low tides human oyster catchers appear, perhaps they are too difficult to see in this photo, but they line the edge of the water and search for little morsels as well. In truth, neither the bird nor the human is likely to find an oyster, far more likely a mussel.

There are a couple of guys who consistently fish at the water’s edge, casting out their short line, waiting for a bite. They are very patient, casting over and over again as the tide rolls in. We have never seen them catch anything, but they never seem to lose heart,

We also occasionally have a rider and his beautiful horse that gallop back and forth. Even if we don’t see them every day, we often find hoof prints in the sand.

My favorite observation was of a cormorant, almost as big as a swan, diving under the surf and swimming completely submerged for many seconds as she searched for her breakfast. Above, closely tracking her movements, was a seagull who had every intention of stealing her meal. The sea gulls seem to make their living illegally in constant petty larceny. One morning Rick was leaning out the window eating his morning toast when a seagull flew right into his face in an attempt to rob him of his meal. Scoundrel!

The back windows don’t look out onto the ocean, but we often find ourselves there nonetheless, as that is the direction from which the sun pours in at midday. There is a beautiful Scots Pine and a small olive tree that live in the back yard. They attract lots of in land birds who forage under their branches.

Ships and Boats

Our telescope, used at home for star gazing, now lives at our window in Dinard.

“Look at the two sail boats. The one in front is moving slower than the one just in back. The one behind took a sharp tack towards shore to avoid getting in the wind shadow of the one ahead. He’s tacking on the leeward side and the two are converging. The one behind is overtaking the leader to windward. Ah, but now he’s stuck in his wake up against the rocks. I imagine he’s yelling ‘Sea room!’”

This was the narration I had from Rick one Saturday morning in October as he was gazing out the window watching a couple of sail boats in the middle of a race. The vocabulary was mostly unfamiliar to me. Rick’s enthusiasm, however, was infectious. He himself has participated in many sail boat races on the San Francisco Bay, but there has not been much sailing in his life since we’ve been married. I wrote down the conversation in my journal so that I could remember it. For the first couple of weeks, we were able to watch sailing races each weekend, and many sailing vessels often all through out the week. Now that we are on lock down, the sailing boats have mostly disappeared.

While there is virtually no pleasure boating at the moment, marine life does go on and we still have lots of ships to observe as they follow the shipping lanes in and out of St. Malo. Fishing boats, ferries, freighters, even Rescue boats.

Yesterday morning we watched as a large ferry was moving through the bay, being closely followed by both a helicopter and a coast guard speed boat. We then noticed that there was a man shinnying down a rope from the helicopter to the ferry and then back up again. We realized it was a training exercise, as there were no people on the ferry. The coast guard was likely following so closely in case the trainee fell into the sea. Which he did not.

There are always fishing boats, mostly trawlers, to watch. One late afternoon we saw a large boat heading out from St. Malo towards the open Atlantic. With the telescope, we could see many fishermen, dressed in their waterproof gear standing side by side on the deck, watching the shore slip past. We could read the name of the ship, it was called the Joseph Roty II.We looked it up and were able to discover that the ship was part of a fishing fleet out of St. Malo called La Compagnie des Pêches. The ship was on its way out for an extended expedition along the north coast of Spain and all of the west coast of France.

While we’re relatively isolated over here, in our beautiful ocean view apartment, knowing no one and able to visit with nobody, it is extremely entertaining for us to watch life go by outside and imagine the sailor’s life. If you have to be locked down, this is not a bad place to be.

Mansions

Vacationing by the sea is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the nineteenth century the seashore wasn’t much of a destination. In fact, the whole concept of taking time to relax somewhere only began to be relevant after the industrial revolution when work became routine, grueling and boring. Since England was the the real cradle of factory work, they could be said to have invented the idea of the modern vacation. The word itself comes from vacate, which originally described the end of the children’s school year when they vacated the classroom to go work on the family farm. The association with leisure, relaxation and getting away, came later.

For holiday-making, Dinard was one of the first locations the British focused upon outside their own country. The upper class, who perhaps wanted to avoid the masses at Brighton and Blackpool, had easy access to the French shore from Portsmouth and eventually other English ports. Of course the British have always considered that France, or at least parts of it, should be their own country… for centuries that was so. It was quite natural for the British to set up their summer mansions on the French coast. And the houses were certainly grand and the architecture decidedly Victorian in style.

When they began to arrive in the mid 1800s, they built their fantasy homes overlooking the water. Each seemed designed to out do the next. There is so much kitsch that Proust described Dinard as “A luxury of cheapness.” By the early 20th century the British had abandoned Dinard for warmer climes. The houses have mostly passed into French hands by now. There are 400 listed buildings in the town and there has been a concerted effort to keep them up. These homes, almost exclusively vacation properties rather than primary residences, are not meant for the faint of heart or thin wallet. Keeping them sound is no small commitment.

From our place one recent day, we took a lovely walk along the bluffs to enjoy the extravagant houses that have been perching there for about 150 years.

Even since the mid nineteenth century when most of these structures were built, the houses lay empty for ten months out of the year.

It seems remarkable that these huge structures would be built for a single family and yet lived in so occasionally.

Between the wars, when many of the houses were abandoned, the larger ones were converted into apartments, making it possible for families of more modest means to own their place on the sand.

Some are a little run down.

Some are like castles.

Some are like gingerbread houses.

The variety of style is impressive. We have hardly cracked the surface of mansion house sightseeing opportunities. They line the coast in levels of extravagance.

Towards the end of our walk we came upon this fortress-like property. The large stone pinecone, reminiscent of Roman grandeur piqued our curiosity. Most of these homes have names. This one, inscribed on the wall, is called Greystones. We noticed people peeking in through the front gate, so we took our turn. The house is not visible from the road, but the walls protect a very grand and immaculately maintained garden, with bronze statues of dancing nymphs. Upon our return home we searched online to see if we could find out more about the property. It turns out it is owned by François Pinault, a French multi-billionaire, owner, to name just a few, of Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen fashion house.

So I guess Dinard’s swank is not entirely a thing of the past.

St. Enogat

Saint Enogat was a Breton saint who was the fifth Bishop of Saint Malo.

It is from the tiny fishing village of St. Enogat that Dinard began to expand during the nineteenth century to become the resort town it is today. That is why St. Enogat is called The Cradle of Dinard. It was originally it’s own separate town but was incorporated into Dinard proper in 1858. Downtown Dinard, where you find the Casino and the main tourist beach is about a kilometer away from this little enclave where our rental apartment sits. It has its own beach, separated from the main Dinard beach by a promontory. We are very happy to be in the less crowded part of town. St. Enogat feels very much like its own little village. It reminds us a little of Carmel.

Morning in St. Enogat

Meanwhile, we have been studying the history of this place. A plaque posted in the center of town piqued our interest. In rough translation, it reads:

Until 1850, St. Enogat was a small fishing and agricultural town. During the Belle Epoch, St. Enogat became the place where artists and intellectuals met. Albert Lacroix, famous editor of Victor Hugo was a big promoter of the St. Enogat beach. In 1875, he purchased a large piece of land and began to construct a compound where artists could meet, live together and create. He called it “The Ocean Villas”. Many contemporary artists were charmed by the location, including Judith Gautier, daughter of Théophile Gautier and first woman to be accepted into the Goncourt Literary Academy. She regularly invited friends like Debussy, Yamamoto, Paul Valéry and John Sargent to her villa called “The Bird’s Meadow.”

This brief summary turned into a research project for us. We knew some of these names, but who was Judith Gautier, who figured so importantly in the town’s history? We had never heard of Yamamoto either, someone so distinguished, apparently, that he only needs one name.

Portrait of Judith Gautier, painted by Yamamoto.

If you have any interest in 19th century art or literature, you may have heard of Théophile Gautier. He was an extremely important French journalist, art critic and poet in his day. He wrote the libretto for the ballet Giselle. He was a Bohemian iconoclast who was at the center of the important artistic movements of his time. He was friends with Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Delacroix, Manet and influenced Baudelaire, Proust and Oscar Wilde. He coined the expression “Art for art’s sake.

He had two daughters, the eldest of which was Judith. She was a poet and novelist in her own right. She was the first woman to be admitted into the esteemed Académie Goncourt. She also was a translator, fluent in Chinese and Japanese. She was responsible for introducing Europe to the poetry of these two countries. Yamamoto, a Japanese artist who studied western art in Paris was her friend and a frequent visitor to the home she bought in St. Enogat. I found it amusing to think of Yamamoto painting a western style portrait of Judith during the same years that Monet, Van Gogh, Whistler and Degas were furiously collecting Japanese art and falling under its influence.

Albert Lacroix, the first of the literati to discover St. Enogat in the mid nineteenth century, was a highly idealistic editor who published Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables when no one else would touch it. It was, in fact, on his way to visit Hugo, who was exiled on Jersey Island, that Lacroix spent a night in Dinard. Before catching his ferry, he took a walk and discovered St. Enogat beach which captured his imagination. Within a few years, he had bought a large parcel of land and began to build a kind of utopian artists’ retreat on the bluff above the sea. He wanted to create a community where people could create together. Judith Gautier was an enthusiastic participant in this plan. On her parcel she built a modest home within a huge garden, which she named “Le Pré des Oiseaux.” She was, like her father, a free-thinking individual. She was married briefly, but divorced. She was the lover of Richard Wagner, in whose opera Tannhauser, she and her house in St. Enogat are, apparently, obliquely mentioned.

Le Pré des Oiseaux, St. Enogat

Later in her life, after retiring permanently to St. Enogat, she lived with a much younger woman named Suzanne Meyer-Zundel, who inherited the house and lived in it until her own death in 1971. They are buried together in the St. Enogat cemetery.

As far as we know, the intelligentsia have moved on, but it’s satisfying to imagine their days on the beach of St. Enogat. Judith, we understand, wandered just under our windows in her kimono. The house we live in was built 11 years before her death.

Plans for Les Villas de la Mer.

Discovering Dinard

Dinard is across the Rance estuary from St. Malo, along the same coastline. It is a city we did not know at all until recently – a fashionable resort town, with a film festival, casino and high end shops. Originally a sleepy fishing port, it was discovered by the British aristocracy in the 19th century and the newcomers built extravagant Belle Époque mansions on the hills overlooking the sea, which remain today, giving the town its distinctive personality. It was perhaps the most popular and prestigious seaside destination in France before the Côtes d’Azur was discovered by the rich and famous in the 1930s. Dinard is now sometimes called The Cannes of the North, although it might be more fitting to call Cannes the Dinard of the South. Famous visitors and part-time residents included Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, Picasso, Debussy and Oscar Wilde. Because of its reputation we had not paid much attention to Dinard. It didn’t seem like our kind of place.

While searching for an apartment to rent in St. Malo, our first choice of locations for our retirement, I came across an ad for a seasonal rental in the western, quieter part of Dinard. I immediately fell in love with the house and location pictured on the site. I wrote to the owner asking if he would consider renting his apartment, the upper two floors of the house pictured below, for the off-season. To my surprise and delight, he answered in the affirmative and quoted us a very reasonable price. We are welcome to stay until his first returning summer clients arrive in mid-June. 

Besides the charm of the house itself, it has direct access to a wonderful intimate beach and magnificent views out the windows. We are able to watch the ships and boats coming and going, and look across the water to St. Malo and various islands.

The house was built in 1906 by the great grandmother of our landlord. During his mother’s generation, the house was divided into three apartments, one on each floor and one given to each of three daughters. The bottom two floors were eventually sold to people outside the family, so that now just the apartment where we are staying is still in the original family. They don’t seem to use the house at all anymore, as they are scattered far and wide, so the apartment has for some years been a vacation rental. They have a set of summer clients who return year after year, and the house had just been shut up during the off season, as is much of Dinard, so it seems that the owners are as happy to have us as we are to be here. Dinard has a permanent population of 10,000, but during the summer it swells to 50,000, so many of the houses along the shore are shuttered much of the year. In truth, for us it seems wise to leave Dinard during the summer high season, even though our original thought was to rent something permanently. We have seen photos of the beach below the apartment in July. It is jammed with bathers and sun worshipers. We prefer the more or less empty expanse of sand they leave behind at the end of summer.

We are just beginning to get to know our neighborhood and discover the market, local restaurants and the routines of daily life in this corner of the world. So far we are still preoccupied with the view out our windows, the tides rising and receding, the colors of the sky and water changing, all the activity that takes place below us.

I am learning about natural phenomena that I have thought little about before. For instance, there is a lot more to know about tides than that you have low and high ones twice every day. We have our chart that lets us know which way the water is flowing, but we begin to observe that not all tides are equal. On the tidal chart is a number which we didn’t at first understand. It is called the coefficient. The tidal range varies considerably according to the relative positions of the earth, moon and sun.

Yesterday was one of the lowest and conversely highest tides of this year according to our chart. The beach became enormous when the tide reached it’s lowest ebb revealing tiny islands and sandbars everywhere.

We walked on the wavy sea floor to the water’s edge just as the tide was turning back. Our house was far in the distance.

Six hours later, the sea came right to the wall below the house. This dramatic displacement of water in a relatively short period of time makes me marvel at the movement of the ocean around our planet. If I stop to ponder this natural phenomenon it seems miraculous, as does most any encounter with the power of nature.

We have learned that not only do the tides have a monthly cycle influenced by the phases of the moon but also a yearly cycle related to the earth’s orbit around the sun. So, living by the ocean gives us plenty of opportunity to observe and question phenomena we were hardly aware of a week ago. It provides a nice break from watching the nightly news.

The world will never starve from want of wonders; but only want of wonder.
— C. K. Chesterton

Retraction!

I received many messages from friends and followers telling me that they could not figure out how to subscribe to or comment on my new Blogger site. I’ve spent some time trying to find a solution only to discover more problems. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that changing too many things at once is a mistake. Therefore I’ve decided to renew this site and let Blogger go. If you subscribed to my original blog here on WordPress, you should receive a notice on Sunday for my next post and for all future posts..

Swan Song

This will be my last blog post here on WordPress, as I am not renewing this site. I thank all of you who have read my words, followed my ramblings and commented on my stories. It has been a great pleasure and honor to know you are out there. I will continue recording my adventures at https://nancypattonwilson.blogspot.com/ so if you want to follow me there, I would be delighted to see you. You can subscribe right on the site. There is a post already awaiting you, which describes the beginnings of a new phase of our lives.

Meanwhile, stay safe and healthy, think hopeful thoughts and appreciate the small pleasures of life.