As Scarlette Le Corre edges slowly through the sun-blazed shallows at low tide, emerald sea lettuce and ginger sea spaghetti kaleidoscope around her rubber boots like two-tone marbling ink. No step is taken without first scrutinising the marine life at her feet – this highly trained eye doesn’t miss a subaqueous beat. Snip. A head of rock-clinging sea lettuce unveiled by the ebbing ocean is deftly cut off and popped in her bucket of water. Snip. A fistful of coarse red dulse and clumps of green hairy cheveux de mer (grass kelp) – which sea-vegetable gourmets in France simply rinse, twirl in olive oil and eat – get the chop.
“Nature is generous and gives us many riches,” said Le Corre. “I’ve eaten seaweed for 35 years and am in good form – eat algae and life is très très belle.”
Disarmingly petite and passionate, with a tendency not to mince her words, Le Corre is the original female French fisher. Back in 1979 she was one of the nation’s first women to pass her Brevet de mécanicien à la pêche, qualifying her to captain a saltwater fishing boat, and has since spent four decades working tirelessly in a masculine industry where women at sea are traditionally believed to bring bad luck.
Her day begins at 04.30 in Le Guilvinec, a salt-of-the-earth fishing port in Finistère, southern Brittany – the sort of place where street graffiti reads “plus de pêcheurs, moins de supermarchés” (more fishermen, less supermarkets) and the menfolk spend two weeks at sea working the town’s 43-strong fleet of deep-sea trawlers. By 06:00, Le Corre is alone at sea in her 1950s orange-and-white boat called Mon Copain (My Boyfriend), tending her cultivated sea fields of wakame garlands or casting her nets for sole, red mullet and the occasional lobster or octopus to sell at morning markets in Le Guilvinec and neighbouring Penmarc’h. Afternoons are spent gathering seaweed on the seashore.
“There’s no room for failure in a profession considered only for men,” Le Corre told me, as we scrambled lithely across wet, slimy rocks together. “As a woman in a man’s world, I don’t ask men for help – I assume complete responsibility to the very end.” Mention retirement to this feisty grandmother and her pace only quickens. Her secret? “A slice of bread or toast each morning with tartare d’algues made from raw seaweeds, olive oil, colza oil and rock samphire vinegar,” she explained proudly.