Coquille

Better late than never, isn’t that the phrase? This post has been in the works and the blog on hold since November at which time the career/life balance got the best of me, when the scales tilted towards more career than exploration. In fact, they have been resting, one-sidedly on the floor ever since. It is time to remedy that. Thank you for your patience and sticking with me on this journey of adventure!

The Grand Canal of France’s Little Venice

Since moving to Europe I have mostly traveled and adventured alone. There are drawbacks to solo-adventuring, but, at the same time, the advantages are many. For example, when I adventure alone I can spend an hour taking photographs of butterflies or a single flower if I wish, whereas had I dragged him along, the Frenchman would have drained his phone battery out of game-playing boredom while he not-so-patiently waited for me to finish.

My favorite part of solo adventuring is the lunches. In the small French towns I love to arrive around lunchtime, locate the main square, preferably waterside, and read through all of the menus before deciding on a restaurant. I look for a menu that is local and features regional specialties, a good price (10 euros or less), and all three courses. The best solo lunch that I have treated myself to so far was at Le Grand Bleu in the seaside town of Sete in southern France.

There, I dined on a first course of Tielle Setoise, an octopus and tomato tarte, a second course of loup or seabass, and a dessert of my favorite food in France (after the cheese and wine, bien sur): Ile Flottant. As I sat alone, I memorized the menu, which contained various Mediterranean fish names and chatted with the gentleman sitting next to me about huitres or oysters, a subject on which he had many opinions. I listened and smiled with the Romani street musicians set up a band across the street from the restaurant terrace and, in my contentment, even gave them the only spare change I have ever given a street performer. In Sete, on the terrace of Le Grand Bleu, life was wonderful.

Tielle Setoise at Le Grand Bleu
Tielle Setoise at Le Grand Bleu

Outside the terrace, it was cold and overcast, not at all the ideal weather for visiting the South of France’s “little Venice,” as the guidebooks tell me it is called though I can hardly imagine the locals, mainly sea-roughened fishermen, calling it that with a straight face. Sete is a town of causeways and canals, a true port town, existing, it seems on fishing and marine activities.

The fishermen yell and holler, and the seagulls follow the boats into the harbor in a large flock, dipping and screeching as though they will tear the boat apart in their mad search for the fishy-deliciousness it carries. And, on the way out to the sea, somewhere in between the Mediterranean and the end of a river lie Sete’s famous coquille farms.

Seagulls mob a trawler on its way back to port
Seagulls mob a trawler on its way back to port
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Colorful boat-mooring rope in Sete, France
An old boat, the San Joseph, sits quietly in the Grand Canal

After my lunch, I wandered around the grey city, wondering what to do until the return bus came in the late afternoon. The guidebook suggested climbing the mountain that overlooks the town for a view of the sea. But, as I gazed up at the viewing point with a belly full of poisson and a poor choice of footwear, that interested me little. Instead, I chose to walk along one of the canals where I happened upon a gaggle of people climbing aboard a neon-yellow boat. Without much else to do, I, too, climbed aboard, for the unknown boat adventure.

As it turned out, the boat was headed out to view the coquille farms. The visit was to last approximately two hours and I gladly sat down with my full belly and wrapped my scarf tightly around me as we headed out to the sea. (The boyscout rule may be to always be prepared, but the French lady rule is that if you have a scarf you always will be.)

The coquille beds poke up from the water in neat little rows of wooden platforms.  Through them cut roads and pathways for the farming boats. The beds are reminiscent of a garden trestle, with only the top of the structure visible above the water. Hanging down from the trestle is the garden where thousands of shellfish “flowers” grow before they are ready to be harvested for consumption at restaurants such as Le Grand Blue on coquillage platters across France.

A trellis for coquille farming
A trellis for coquille farming in the sea near Sete, France

As we motored along through the streets of the farm beds, the guide motioned half of us to go below the deck as the captain slowed the boat. We sat, noses pressed to the glass, watching the green waters in front of us. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the thousands of long strings of shellfish came into view, the depth of their artificial sea homes unknown. Later, back on the deck, the captain taught us about oyster farming, making jokes at my expense about the bad interactions of alcohol and oyster, jabs, which, I admit, were a bit lost on me as the fun allergist has told me that oysters may be my death.

Thousands of shellfish grow  in coquille farms the murky waters near Sete
Thousands of shellfish grow in coquille farms the murky waters near Sete, France

Back at shore, I debated eating another Tielle Setoise before deciding on some biscuits from an adorable canal-bordering shop. Now, six months later, the biscuit tin is still with us, holding all of our electronics, chargers, converters, and more converters, reminding me always of my little afternoon of delicious food and shellfish in the wind.

“Shy is the oyster. Fervent is the claim. Peaceful is the ocean floor rocked by the sands of time.”
– Bradley Chicho, poet

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