Hamfist And The Fishing Shacks

DSCF4115There’s little chronology to these blogs – they leap about more-or-less on a whim, so when we met Hamfist, we were still on our outbound journey south and had just crossed the wide and muddy Gironde by river ferry from Blaye, about which more another day, perhaps.
From our France Passion (FP) Guidebook, we’d identified an overnight stop at a vineyard on the Medoc side just north of Paulliac (which we were prevented from visiting by the final knockings of a marathon race taking place there with the narrow roads down to the river simply clogged with cars and dazed-looking runners wrapped in silver blankets.)
In most instances, we’d simply arrived at the designated FP location, been briefly greeted by whoever we could find, and pointed in the general direction of where we were to park the van. On this occasion, we were greeted by a gentleman of late middle-age with a decent height and girth on him – looking a little like a Gallic version of Jeremy Clarkson with a weather-leathered face. As we shook hands and grunted unintelligibly at each other – we noticed he had the most enormous hands. Roughened and ruddy from agricultural toil and – presumably – viniculture, our poor unwitting host immediately became known to us as Hamfist (which rather amusingly translates as Jambonpoing in the vernacular.) Anyway, he waved us towards a field alongside his ordered rows of vines, almost within stone-throwing distance of the river, where we parked up and immediately set out to walk the estate and stretch our journeyfied legs.
Along the edge of the mighty, muddy Gironde, we’d already noticed a repetition of fishing shacks, like small sheds built on stilts to stand proud of the tidal waters. Each shack was approached by a length of stilted walkway above the reeded margins which allowed passage from land. These walkways were fenced along their length and protected at their landward ends by stout timber doors, padlocked and bearing variously painted legends, all of which basically translated into ‘Private – Keep Out’. Many of the shacks looked forlorn and derelict, although we did espy one in the far distance on which could clearly be seen human silhouettes against the late afternoon sky.
The most fascinating element of these shacks – and the feature which imparted an almost Vietnamese look and feel to the river’s edge – were the fishing nets themselves. These huge nets – one per shack and each about 12 foot square, were simply hung centrally and dangled horizontally from a hefty pole which stuck out from the hut, above the water. As we watched from afar, we could clearly see the net being lowered, raised and fussed over by the occupants of the shack in our line of sight.
Intrepid explorers as we are, we managed after several short-cuts (which turned into mud-impeded dead-ends) to reach the hallowed, gated entrance to the occupied shack, and surprised an elderly bearded Monsieur by both our emergence from the rushes and our inquisitive tourist-like presence.
Surprisingly perhaps, instead of turning his shotgun on us, he muttered something in French and accompanied this with a beckoning motion, opening his gate and in effect ushering us with smiling nods along the rickety gangway to his hut.
And so, the mystery was solved. Our speculation, based on evidence seen at the market we’d visited in Blaye, was that the nets were used for catching shrimps – of which there were obviously plenty on offer on the market stalls. However, Madame, who – perhaps typically – was operating the net and generally running the show, soon dispelled this theory by uncovering a large bucket full of hefty-looking mullet.
For the uninitiated, the mullet is a large, silver-grey scaled sea-fish, with a characteristic wide mouth at the blunt front end, and twin pectoral fins each set at an almost forward-facing angle. Such is their appearance that the mullet tends to look like an underperforming and therefore slightly disappointed flying fish. They are also devilishly difficult to catch with rod and line, hence this primitive but clearly effective method of scooping them from not much more than a two foot depth of swirlingly opaque tidal river water.
We were not induced into the raising and lowering mechanism of the net – this was hidden away in the windowless interior of the hut, although the pole itself did emerge to the rear and was counterbalanced with a large, bell shaped weight. It was clear that this feature aided the frequent net-dipping, and subsequently held the net in an accessible position to allow the catch to be scooped out with a separate long-handled net wielded with efficient and practised ease by Madame Mullet herself.
And so we took our leave, thanking our hosts for their brief but welcomed insight, and hastened quickly fast-forward to the following morning, when, after a night of tumultuous rain, we sought out Hamfist to procure some of his estate-bottled Medoc to add to our growing collection. Within minutes of making our request (in our best fractured French) Hamfist demonstrated an uncanny fulfilment of the epithet we’d foist upon him, as he was the most hamfisted vintner we’d yet encountered. First, he couldn’t find the keys to his cellar; then he couldn’t find a couple of the bottles we’d requested, despite there being hundreds of them laid out in front of us. Then he had to affix foil bottle caps, which of course had to have a green ‘export’ sticker on the top – which we found on an adjacent table top as he bimbled into the darkened vaults of racked oak barrels in search of them. While he roamed ineptly to and fro we were able to notice his tasting table, set out for some future event, no doubt, with labelled boxes of Ikea’s cheaper wine glasses rather dispelling any magic we may have felt from being in the presence of such an array of oak casks, fine wines and fruity-looking labels.
Even at the point of payment, the provision of some trifling amount of change seemed beyond him and he disappeared again, this time into the similarly darkened depths of his own kitchen, where he patted his pockets and rummaged interminably (despite our protestations and suggestions that the change was ‘pas de problem’) and eventually emerged, clutching two tiny coins in one of his huge and hamfisted hands. Bonjour, merci beaucoup and au revoir Monsieur! It’s been an experience.

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