The legend says fractals were discovered by scientists trying to measure the coast of Brittany. In Kerdruc, you can have a conversation from one of the harbour’s quay to the next. But if you wanted to shake hands on a deal and couldn’t cross the water, you would have to walk for several days. The GR34, sometimes cuts inland, so the wary walkers can finally arrive somewhere they can rest their sore feet. If you stick closely to the coast, following the local paths, you go less far, but you are rewarded by spectacular views, and sometimes even a bench, or a conversation.
It is mid-March, an ostréiculteur advertises his oysters (huîtres), mussels (moules), clams (palourdes, praires, amandes and tellins), cockles (coques), spidercrabs (araignées de mer), and edible crabs. Those are called crabe dormeur, “sleepy crab” or tourteau, from tourte, the French equivalent to the pie. But he refuses to sell me mussels: at this time of year, “Les moules ont délaité” (they have let out milk? I had never heard that term), so they are too small. Others, less scrupulous than him, would buy them from somewhere else in order to sell to tourists, but he doesn’t do that, he explains. He mainly gathers and sells oysters, which he keeps alive and cleans in their sea-water vats. I don’t like oysters, so he agrees to sell me some palourdes, clams, however. Bretons are on the whole a quiet but straightforward, welcoming bunch.
The seafood culture is strong in Brittany. I remember going with my grand-father and my parents, during the very low spring and autumn tides, faire de la pêche à pied (literally, “fishing on foot”). In wellies, armed with a metal pick and strong knives, we used to go down the shore to look for mussels, crabs, cockles, limpets, urchins, periwinkles (bigorneaux). The grown-ups would dislodge, battle and catch the crabs and lobsters. Others would scrape mussels and periwinkles off the rocks. I was a little too small to be any use, but I remember the excitement, and the lunchtimes that followed.
Nowadays, signs warn people not to gather the small specimens: “Si vous pêchez les petits aujourd’hui, Que pêcherez-vous demain?” (“If you catch the small ones today, what will you fish tomorrow?”). Good question. In my grandparents’ house there were shells of abalone, ormeaux, kept from the days they were still readily available. They were about ten of them, of all sizes, from one to twelve centimetres, stacked together, neatly nestled into one another like Russian dolls. Their smooth, mother-of-pearl inside fascinated me. I loved the asymmetrical, elegant line of tiny holes. The bigger ones occasionally served as ashtrays during family reunions, something that always shocked me. I have never eaten the animal itself: in the 90’s it wasn’t allowed to catch these any more, as they were too endangered. Now it seems they are recovering.
Further along the coast, you hit the baie d’Audierne…