The Weasel

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There may be more brilliant newspaper columns than this. There may be funnier ones. There may even - ahem - be less repetitive ones. But I think I can justifiably boast that no other column displays such a single-minded devotion to fruits de mer. So when educational business prompted Mrs Weasel to take a brief visit to Guernsey, I pleaded to be taken along. Aside from the undeniable pleasure of being a kept man, the reason for my entreaty was that the Channel Islands are the only place in Britain where it is possible to procure the legendary ormer (the name is a contraction of oreille de mer), a rare and handsome shellfish belonging to the abalone family.

I recall seeing Keith Floyd tackle ormers when his TV show visited Jersey a few years ago. With characteristic flamboyance, he belted the bejazus out of them (like octopus, they require softening) before boiling the inoffensive creatures for 24 hours. After taking a single bite, the maestro pronounced them inedible and bunged them in the rubbish bin. Irresistible, huh? On the other hand, Alan Davidson, in his magisterial North Atlantic Seafood, quotes a 19th-century authority: "an epicure might think his palate in paradise if he might but always gourmandise on such delicious ambrosia". More to the point, the ormer is still much in demand among present-day Channel Islanders. In order to protect stocks, it is illegal to dive for them or even wear a wet-suit when trying to locate the blighters. Since these single-shelled creatures cling with titanic strength to tidal rocks, they have to be dislodged with a crowbar. Furthermore, no ormer under 80mm may be removed.

None of this bothered me, since I had no intention of feeling round in the wintry waters for recalcitrant shellfish. I was much more alarmed by the rule that "it is only permitted to take ormers from 1 January-30 April on the day of each new and full moon and on the two following days". If the regulations have a picturesque lunacy, this does not apply to the penalties: "pounds 5,000 or imprisonment for three months or both". Since it is also illegal to freeze them, the chances of me being able to taste ormer in November appeared to be zilch. While I plunged into a gloom as dark as the inaccessible ormer beds, our host on the island promised to see what he could do.

Having survived five years under the iron heel of the Boche, the natives of the bailiwick are not daunted by a few petty regulations. An hour later, there came a soft tap on the door and a plastic bag containing eight large ormers ("They must've found their way into the freezer by accident eh?") changed hands. On the plate, they resembled monstrously huge mussels. Cooked in their own juice with bacon, they were tender but surprisingly meaty. One Guernsey guidebook accurately notes "the flesh is not unlike a veal cutlet". Not bad, it wasn't too bad at all - but when risking three months in chokey I'd want, something more than a veal cutlet.

Guernsey is a tiny lump of granite shaped exactly like a half-eaten sandwich (diagonally nibbled). With a year-round population of 58,000 perched on just 25 square miles of land, it is no place for claustrophobics. The island's capillary-like thoroughfares are perpetually crowded with traffic which trundles along at the statutory limit of 35mph. House prices are higher than London. In an estate agent's window, I saw a semi-detached on the market for pounds 635,000 ("some upgrading of finishes may be worthwhile"). Yet some eerie force, possibly not unrelated to the advantageous tax regime, continues to exercise a magical magnetism to this offshore speck. But envious mainlanders need not waste their time perusing the property pages. Unless you have pounds 1 million or more to drop on a humble island abode, the market is closed to us.

Given the circs, it seems odd that the most stylish structures on the island should remain unoccupied. Built in reinforced concrete, they resemble small-scale versions of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. All boast spectacular views out to sea. Judging by the example I entered, their spartan interiors would find favour with minimalist guru John Pawson (though even this purist might consider that the lack of glazing is going a bit far). It struck me that our guide was being optimistic when he noted that "the steel is starting to degrade". Those Germans built to last.

A ragged sea flung buckets of briny over rush-hour traffic edging its way into the island's handsome capital of St Peter Port. "Bit of a slap on," murmured our host as King Neptune's car-wash hammered on the roof. When my companions departed for work, I took a solitary constitutional round the harbour. The wisdom of this course appeared increasingly dubious as the warning signs became ever more ominous, "Sudden swamping... Submergence at any moment... Edges of the breakwater not protected." But I could see a solitary angler near the harbourlight and I was determined to join him.

Having secured the invaluable intelligence that "a few gurnard are biting", I dodged back through the breakers becoming no more drenched than the average tea bag. It seemed a good idea to seek out some kind of waterproofing. In a chandlery on the quay, I was much taken with an Australian garment called "The Original Drizabone; The Legend of the Bush". This full-length macintosh incorporates a dinky little cloak so the wearer bears some resemblance to a frilled lizard. Though I should have thought its name was self-explanatory, a manufacturer's label ironed out any ambiguity: "The word is an Australian expression meaning `Dry as a Bone' which for many years described the bones of animals found in the dry, arid centre of Australia. It also means anything that was totally dry." Well, it certainly worked for me. By the time I'd digested the note, the sun was out.

If there's one thing that links Guernsey and its bigger brother Jersey, it is mutual antipathy. In the way of small neighbouring communities the world over, each island regards the other with deep suspicion and scorn. Our friends on Guernsey shook their heads in perplexity as we ventured to the home of the crapauds (toads) in Jersey - though one offered the grudging concession that the cream-filled meringues in a St Helier department store were OK. In fact, rural Jersey turned out to be a delight, fringed with unspoilt inlets and vast beaches. The highlight came when we arrived at La Corbiere on the isle's south-western extremity. In the gloom of dusk, a causeway curved through a tangled silhouette of jagged rocks to a distant lighthouse. Watery ghosts hung momentarily in the air as waves exploded against the outcrops. The overall effect was remarkably reminiscent of Dracula's castle. But not as nice, remarked an unsurprised Guernseyite, when I mentioned him of the resemblance

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