Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How to Eat Snails

As an avid reader of this blog, you will know that living with the Artist and myself are our two Scotty dogs, Molly and Ralph and Kat the cat. I do sometimes reflect on the reason for having animals living in the house. Why do you want to share your house with something that is smelly, pees on the floor and leaves dirty footprints and hair all over the place; that hinders your independence and costs more in vet bills than we spend on our own medical well-being? All they do is sleep and eat and demand to be taken for walks. And yet I miss them when I’m not with them. But what is it that I miss? They aren’t even cuddly.
Whatever, they’re here to stay and once a day I take them out for a walk along the river. It’s not a very exciting walk, but it gives them a run and takes about an hour.
Recently, on my walk, I noticed a woman wading through the grasses, picking something and putting it into a plastic bag. She was an elderly woman and was wearing a brightly coloured floral-print house dress. I wondered if she was collecting mushrooms or some fungal delicasy. I am naturally a curious person, some would call it nosey, and so when I walked past her later, I asked her what she was collecting.
She smiled and said she was collecting escargots and took one out of the bag to show me. Funnily enough I had just read an article about the dire state of the French Escargots, and how there had been a massive decline in their population and that they were being imported from Thailand at great expense! I remember being surprised by this as my courtyard is crawling with the buggers. The Artist regularly goes out with a large tub of table salt which he pours over any intrepid snail or slug making its way towards my pots of herbs or the cat food, for that matter (who would have known that slugs love Friskies Croquettes?). This has an almost instant effect, as the snail, or slug, turns itself inside out to get away from the salt. Quite nasty really, but it does stop them in their tracks and isn't toxic to birds. Afterwards you do have to clear away a slimy pile of salt of course or wait for the next downpour.
Anyway, to this woman, the snails were obviously a veritable treasure. She held one up for me to see. She then proceeded to tell me what you needed to do to make them palatable. She was speaking in a very heavy Provencal accent, so I’m not sure if I got it all, but here is the gist of it.
You put the snails in a bucket, or a hessian sack, with a lid, so they don’t escape and then you feed them herbs for two weeks, thyme, fennel, parsley, etc. you then boil them up with more herbs and garlic and eat them, along with a lot of butter, parsley and garlic, (the Holy Trinity of French cooking). She had different varieties of snails in her bag and showed me them all and told me their names and how to cook them. The small white ones, which couldn’t have had more meat in them than a lark’s tongue, you could eat immediately. I couldn’t imagine why you would bother, but then you could say the same thing about a larks tongue! I thanked her for her information and carried on homeward bound.
A few days later, I was re-potting some of our herbs and noticed that there were a lot of snails stuck to the outside of the old pots. In fact two were in the throes of copulating, they were stuck together end to end with lots of foam coming out of them! ‘Not in my garden you don’t’ I said in my Margot from 'The Good life' voice as I picked them up by their shells and put them in the beds of Souleiado, opposite us. I picked up the rest of the snails, there really were quite a lot of them, and dropped them into a plastic bowl, thinking I’d put them in the Souleiado bed as well. As I was plopping them into the plastic bowl, it occurred to me that actually, what I had here was in fact a gastronomic commodity, and to throw them away, when so many people were out there searching through the undergrowth for them, was surely rather profligate. What is more, I knew exactly where these came from and they were wholly organic? Imagine the price for organic snails! Before I knew what I was doing, I was picking thyme, parsley and rosemary from my pots and putting it in with the snails and I covered the bowl with a piece of cardboard that happened to fit the bowl perfectly.
I monitored them over the next few days, and soon learned their preferential eating habits. They liked parsley and thyme, but weren’t keen on the rosemary or sage. It did occur to me that I was in fact feeding them exactly what I was trying to inhibit them from eating in the first place. There was a difference, though, I was now in control and they weren’t just helping themselves.
I carried on feeding them over the next few days, adding things like carrot tops and the outer leaves of a lettuce. I also had long discussions with people who came to the house and asked their advice. Cyril, a trainee architect who is drawing plans for us, told me that as a child they would collect snails and feed them on herbs that they found in the hills, another friend told me that you have to feed them flour. This fattens them up apparently, and gets rid of their bitter tasting slime. Maybe it dehydrates them from within. Whatever, in went the flour with the herbs.
Then after about 10 days, we had the most all mighty thunderstorm, the cardboard lid disintegrated and many of the snails broke out, making a last, floury bid for freedom. I must say, I wasn’t all that sorry. I had become quite fond of them, once you start feeding something, how do you differentiate between it being dinner or a pet?
That night the Artist went out to buy supper and came home with a bag of frozen snails that he had bought for €6 and they were already stuffed.
I decided that some things are best left to the professionals, and snail farming, I had to concede, might be one of those things.