Monday, August 21, 2006


Out at Amerloque's residential farm in the lush French countryside, the vacation month of August continues tranquilly. Cadenced as it is every year by several events, the period is ideal for reflection, relaxation and renewal.

To everything, there is a season, and for the farmers in Amerloque's part of Normandy, the time to reap – the harvest season - is generally drawing to a satisfactory close. Among the usual crops nowadays are hay, corn, rapeseed / colza, and sunflowers. Fields still green are being emptied of the remaining huge bales of hay (and even more massive roundballs !) left out in the sun to dry. Farmers pile their haycarts and trucks to impressive heights and then, at snaillike speeds, repatriate the precious fodder to their barns, which are frequently some distance away.

Unlike the vast agribusinesses so prevalent in the USA, the farms hereabouts are not enormous. Lower Norman holdings are far, far smaller, indeed; parcels of land used by the one given farmer might be scattered around the countryside, thanks to strict applications of French inheritance laws which, since the French Revolution, have provided for equal division of property among all the children. The size of an average dairy herd in Amerloque's region is something on the order of 30 head, for example.

In August, one is well advised to drive with extreme caution on narrow rural roads. At normal speeds, turning a blind corner – and there are many, in this verdant land, with its remaining traditional hedgerows - can be quite dangerous, since one might find oneself suddenly facing an oncoming tractor hauling a mountain of hay on a hay trailer. One must then screech to a halt and back up carefully until the farmer and his cargo are able to pass easily. It is equally dangerous to round a corner and come up behind a diesel-smoke-spewing tractor/trailer hayhauler. In the latter case, on prend son mal en patience, as the French locution would have it, making a virtue out of necessity. One should take special care at the end of the afternoon, when farmers manifestly overload the hay trailers on their last trip of the day.

Amerloque had once thought seriously about becoming an astronomer; but he realized quite early on that the enjoyment of the occupation for him risked being the pleasant solitude on the mountaintops rather than the austere beauty of the required mathematics. He nevertheless took enormous interest in the skies and in calendars; he became an enthusiast of astronomy rather than an amateur astronomer. Seasoned skywatchers – and attentive enthusiasts – look forward every August to the Perseid meteor shower, which has taken place each year for something like 2000 years, The shooting stars (étoiles filantes) are called "Perseids" simply because the point they appear to be coming from is in the constellation of Perseus. Although the meteor shower begins near the middle of July, the bulk of the celestial activity falls between August 8th and 14th. The peak is usually on August 12th, when perhaps a hundred or more meteors per hour can be observed. In olden times in France, the Perseids – which almost undoubtedly instilled fear and awe among the ignorant - were known by the reassuringly poetic larmes de Saint Laurent ("tears of St. Lawrence"). Since 1991 throughout France, on the first or second Friday in August – Perseid prime time ! - there has been an organized nuit des étoiles, designed to increase interest in astronomy among the general public.

For a number of years now Amerloque has made an effort on the farm to observe the August meteor shower, which can be quite spectacular after midnight. An outdoor barbecue of freshly-made summertime saucisses et merguez, and baguettes, accompanied by the traditional Lower Normandy cheeses camembert, livarot, and pont l'eveque; homemade cider from a local farm; comfortably padded extensible lounge chairs; several cozy blankets; and excellent company: how basic are the ingredients for a successful Norman Perseid night !

However, the weather is a crucial, inescapable component of the evening: in some years, it has been quite cooperative: balmy temperatures, a gentle breeze combining the foreground odors of the countryside with the background tang of the ocean, a scant 50 kilometers distant. In July, France was hit by a heatwave lasting several weeks, and Amerloque was counting on warm temperatures for Perseid Day. This year Zeus/Jupiter must have been either in a foul mood or simply eager to compensate for the previous hot weather, for the frankly chilly breezes and low scudding clouds on the day prevented any meteor spotting except at rare intervals. Amerloque usually observes until the constellation Orion rises – it is the only time in the year that he indulges his enthusiasm for direct astronomy, after all, unless a comet transfixes the heavens or an eclipse darkens the earth - but after a particularly brutal series of rainy gusts, he and the guests proceeded indoors, where a roaring fire - and an unopened, unplayed Trivial Pursuit boardgame - fortunately awaited.

The unseasonably low temperatures - still continuing - reminded Amerloque that the third annual August event – after the harvests and the Perseids – is the change in the weather, which invariably seems to take place on or about August 15th. In Amerloque's experience, the weather changes somewhat abruptly but almost like clockwork around Assumption, the traditional August 15th national holiday. The local farmers have informed Amerloque that the colder, cloudier weather is somehow linked (!) to the grandes marées, the "big tides" - what is called in English the "spring tide".

Of course, it's not the exact calendar date, stricto sensu, that determines the size of the spring tide; August 15th is just a convenient, coincidental touchstone, easy to remember and pass along as folk wisdom. Around new and full moon when the sun, moon and earth form a line (called "syzygy"), the sun's tidal forces bolster the moon's. Hence the range of the tides is then at its maximum, causing the "spring tide", les grandes marées. The biggest spring tides take place shortly after the new and full Moon closest to the equinoxes – about the 21st of March and the 23rd of September. They are called the "Equinoctial Spring Tides". Whether or not the weather is influenced by the tides is another story, naturally: it is clear, though, that weather does have an influence on the tides !

In France, tides are rated on a scale from 20 to 120, and any tide with a coefficient over 100 is considered to be a grande marée; August, September and October are months when the tides are grandes. The French – especially those in the countryside and on the seacoasts – pay careful attention to the dates, which are even published and broadcast by the media. For during the grandes marées, French people love going to the seaside and, at low tide, harvesting shellfish, notably mussels and clams, but also cockles, shrimp; prawns, and crabs. Thousands upon thousands of fishermen-for-a-day, cityfolk included, throng the beaches, striding out beyond the usual limits, sometimes several kilometers from land. The experienced old-timers help out the green firstimers – quite easy to spot because they are carrying inappropriate implements or tools. All that is required are buckets and nets, as well as a prying tool or two. A modicum of wet weather apparel is needed, too high gumboots, a rainslicker, and a waterproof hat are de rigueur.

Amerloque never goes on a shellfish gathering expedition during the August spring tides (far too many people !), and he made no exception this year. The grandes marées were August 11, 12 and 13 (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, with tidal coefficients of 105, 106 and 102 respectively). Not only was this the vacation month of August … but the tides fell right in the middle of the four-day long Assumption Holiday weekend. (Yes, it was another long weekend !) The traffic in France on such an August weekend is unbearable: tanned vacationers heading back to Paris after having taken the month off between Bastille Day and l'Assomption; other people enjoying the four-day weekend as, perhaps, their only vacation at all; yet others driving to the coasts to hunt for shellfish …Amerloque stays off the roads at such times.

This year, as every year during August, a local farmer did bring liters of freshly harvested mussels, from his big tidal adventure, over to Amerloque. Mrs A applied her inimitable recipe for moules au bouchot marinées à la façon du Pays d'Auge to transform them into an exquisite delight - which, of course, was shared with the farmer: cela va de soi. Basically, cider and a slice of apple (as well as usual onions, pepper and sundry seasonings) are added to the water the moules are cooked in. The mussels are then taken out of the shells and chilled in a white sauce (with a chouia of Normandy cream, tout naturellement) containing a few slices of Normandy apple from Amerloque's farm and other seasonings. It is served chilled, not hot.

On vacation in Normandy, the Amerloque family eats more fish than during the year in Paris. One reason is that local farmers – or their spouses - . seem constantly to be trundling off to the seacoast for some agricultural reason. For example, the farmer up the road from Amerloque sells quantities of his butter and cheeses on the open-air markets in Caen and Bayeux. He drives up there three or four times a week … and usually manages to bring back fresh fish, landed that very morning. Amerloque has a kind of standing order with him during August, for fish and real scallops – the latter generally frozen, alas, since the season in France is only about seven months long, from October to April. Fresh unfrozen scallops found on the summertime markets in Brittany and Normandy are generally from the Isle of Jersey.

"What does Amerloque mean by 'real scallops' ?", the attentive reader may ask. "When is a scallop not 'real' ?"

The fishing village of Port-en Bessin is famed throughout France for its Coquilles Saint Jacques – aka the "scallop". This is the renowned pecten maximus, which is really the only true French variety. Several years ago (1996) the World Trade Organization bureaucrats shamefully decreed that a number of varieties of "scallops" can also bear the name Coquilles Saint Jacques as long as the proper Latin name(s) appeared as well. So nowadays in France one can encounter all kinds of processed and unprocessed "scallops" from all over the world, including but not limited to the following varieties (Amerloque keeps his hit list updated):

pecten novazaelandia
placopecten magellanicus
argopecten purpuratus
chlamys islandica
chlamys nobilis
zygochlamys patagonica
patinopecten yessoensis

Nowadays, in season, if one requests Coquilles Saint-Jacques at the open air markets inland, one might receive any or all of the above, or one might receive a real French scallop, a pecten maximus. Amerloque offers this trip to travelers, a tip not found in the guidebooks: to be certain of obtaining the real French scallop, ask for pecten maximus and accept no substitutes. If one is lucky, the fishmonger's face will light up and an impassioned conversation will begin. Usually s/he will throw in copious advice concerning a suitable recipe, en plus.

In Normandy, in August, it is indeed "A time to gain, a time to lose". In one quiet month, one is able to gain perspective, peace and repose, while at the same time to lose the stress, tension and anxiety accumulated throughout the year.

In addition, one is able to prepare for what might be termed the French annual rebirth in September: la rentrée.


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright by Amerloque


Blogger blueVicar said...

I don't know about August as a month "to gain perspective, peace and repose, while at the same time to lose...stress, tension and anxiety," Amerlogue. At my house (with a 13 year old) la rentrée is ever in mind; all else wanes in anticipation of that first week in September.

This post was particularly rich for me: I met and fell in love with my husband of 22 years during the Perseids; I learned 4 years ago (when I found the Anglican church) that my birthday coincides with l'Assomption; I grew up with harvests of crops that are now historic; we live in the midst of sunburned tourists in a land where we are foreign ourselves.

Thank you.

7:30 AM  
Blogger CJ said...

I have been living in Paris for 6 months now and this article gave me such a desire for the country summer life. Maybe by next summer I will be able to make that a reality.
Thank you.

4:05 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Bluevicar !

Thanks for stopping by !

Sounds like the Perseid shower every year is indeed a memorable occasion for you !

Happy (belated) Birthday !

La rentrée approche à grands pas ...


2:05 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello cj !

Thanks for stopping by !

Six months ? Watch out - time flies, in Paris ... (wide smile)


2:09 AM  

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