PICKING FIELDS – AT THE ESTUARY OF THE RIVER SOMME

Le TOuquetThis is the view just before the exit to “Le Touquet”. We had been driving from Brussels with Simon Beugnies, an expert on wild edible plants who wanted the discover more about the species growing in that very specific biotope known as “pres-sales” or salty fields. Two years ago, I had visited the estuary of the river Somme, looking for salicornia, which I had subsequently fermented in a salt brine together with garlic, carrot and the odd stalk of Chinese cabbage. Locally, salicornia are preserved in a vinegar solution which is far too acidic and which leaves no room to the subtle aroma of salicornia. On the same occasion, I found another plant which I also successfully fermented and consumed but of which I did not know the name.

This time round, we drove to Saint Valery, the village perched on the banks of the river as it pours into the sea. It’s an area of sands forming ever-changing shapes in the water, depending on the tides. The salty fields are just a step further away from the sea. The sea water inundates them only at the time of the equinoxes. Salicornia grow in two specific concessions, where only pickers possessing a patent can walk. There, the salicornia grows as a monoculture and can be picked in large quantities. In the other salty fields, salicornia grow smaller and amidst other plants of different color and sizes.

September is the end of the picking season and the field before us shows already various flowers growing happy and plentiful. Simon identifies the patches of the same plant that grow in the prairie from their shape and color. His ethics is to grow only what is plentiful and to take around 10% from each specific patch. In this way, one does not put pressure on the plant. Also, one should not pick plants that are full of seeds, as this is what ensures their future. Picking wild plants is not just a hobby, it is an encounter with a precious and fragile world and it’s important to take only what one can use and to limit one’s impact on the species. Simon takes out various books and we try to identify what is what. We seem to find descriptions that correspond to the plants we see, but then there is always a gap to bridge, between a plant that is under your eyes and which can have quite some big variations of size and shape, within the same field, and a drawing in a book.

salty fields  We decide to take some small samples of 5 other plants (pic 1)

Armoise – this is also a sea version of armoise, with a bitter and aromatic edge, not so suitable for salads and more inspiring for a liqueur (pic 2).

Obione – it has rounded silvery leaves and a very delicate taste. It grows in bushes that are quite tall but which the wind pushes to   the ground and ruffles together with other herbs.

Soude – this is the plant that has the most variable aspect. We find a large tuft that the sea has eradicated and which has very turgid tiny leaves and flowers and then see a more silvery version of the plant that grows together with salicornia. Also know as “ponpon”, because early in the season it looks like a soft needle plant.

Arroche – this is a sea version of arroche, with a more pronounced salty flavor and harder leaves.

Aster – these are the long rounded leaves around the yellow flowers in the salty field. They have a very distinct aroma, the most pronounced of them all.

We decide to take a look around at Cap Hornu, just a couple of kilometers further from where we are picking. There we come across what looks like a fisher woman. It turns out that Renette is one of the last two women collecting sea worms by hand at Cap Hornu. She picks them one by one using a sort of metal comb. At the end of a working day, she will have thousands of them. Back at her home, the worms live in salty water, which Renette re-oxygenates with oyster shells. Every days, she ships a few thousands to the South of France, where they are used as living bait for fishermen. Renette is a stroke of luck: she has published a book on the edible species growing in the bay and she reassures us that we have identified the plants correctly and that, yes, we can eat them!

We tell Renette about our plan to ferment the plants, a method she is not acquainted with. So we promise to meet back next summer: she will lead us into the concession and we will show her how to preserve the plants.

 

armoise de mer

armoise de mer

 

soude and salicornia

soude and salicornia

arroche

arroche

armoise et obione (feuilles rondes)

armoise et obione (feuilles rondes)

petit matin de la cueillette

petit matin de la cueillette

the guy in the car

the guy in the car

  1. September 21st, 2013

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