l’homme des escargots
You don’t get to meet too many Aussies around here (that’s ‘Australian’ when talking Orstrayan)… it took me more than 10 years to meet this one. Yes, there are quite a few foreigners around here – English, Dutch, New Zealander, some Americans, Irish,Canadian – but not so many from where I’m from.
I’d always been told about ‘the other Aussie’ in the next village – “Vous ne connaissez pas Joff-wah?!?” (aka Geoffrey), they would exclaim. No, I’d respond. I hadn’t met ‘the other one’, even after many years of exploring Felines, a mere 3 km’s from us , I’d never set eyes on Joff-wah. I’d been told I would have remembered if I’d met him. And I now know why.
Meeting ‘Geoff’ (I’ll stay simple) finally happened via the lovely Evonne, who had recently moved in and become the third Aussie in our parts. How wonderful to finally have some ‘mates’ from the other side of the world!! I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to finally hear the word ‘dance’ rhyme with ‘ants’ and to hear news of a dawn meeting at Geoff’s to watch the AFL Grand Final of Australian Rules football. Unheard of in the Minervois until now! After all these years. Geoff also has a French partner (divine Florence) who also works in wine, like mine – it’s mad we’d never met.
Now I should tell you that Geoff, as well as being token Aussie in his village, is also known as a damn fine snail catcher and cook. It’s a big tradition around here and once these little slimy creatures come out in force after a big rain, you hear much talk amongst the locals of ‘cagaraula’ (‘snails’ in local Occitan). Evonne had told me how good Geoff’s snails were and it was thanks to him that I got to try my third-ever* meal of ‘les escargots’…
* (the first time was back in 1997 in Cape Town where Benji and I had recently eloped – long story and one that I will explain, later! – and out dining with some Frenchies, I thought I should dip my toes into ‘their’ cuisine once and for all)
And what were they like? Bloody good!!
the night of the snail hunter
I must say I loved every bit of this dish. A bit of tomato here, a lovely chunk of pork meat there, some snail flesh here… It’s amazing how well the flavours merged and complemented each other. I just didn’t want to stare at my fork for too long and wonder about where the big slimy chunks had grown up.
what’s this slug on my fork?!??
After beginning our evening with a yummy apero of La Tour Boisee white wine, the snails slid down deliciously with red. Florence’s La Tour Boisee Minervois 2010 was a real treat.
Escargots a La Minervoise and La Tour Boisee 2010 Minervois red
I used to think that these creatures were torn from their outside homes, cleaned up a bit, thrown into a cook pot and then served swimming out of their shells in cream and garlic. Not so simple! Snail hunting and preparation is a carefully orchestrated, time-consuming passion. I could give you my boring, textbook account of how Geoff prepares his snails, but I think the words of the Snail Hunter himself are far more interesting:
1. Once the snails are collected they are put into a bird’s cage. Trapping the snails in a cage allows them to empty their stomachs from herbs or plants that could be poisonous to humans. So a period of starvation assures that you are not going to kill your friends after your dinner party. You can change their diet by feeding the snails with herbs, spices and salads that do not harm humans. Starving the snails makes them thinner and less earthy tasting. So this caging period is a tricky one and most Snailers have their method of doing it. Some other elements that determine the length and method of caging the snails are also the climate, type of cage and the location of the cage. It is a long process as you don’t want the snails to die of starvation, neither suicide from madness, or just simply close back up in their shell in hibernation. Consider the caging period of a snail like trapping the wine in a container. Wine is alive and its “caging period” between the vine to the table is felt at the time of digestion.
The only time I put them in the bath tub or the kitchen sink is to clean them (I had been told the cage had sat in the family bath tub) – the “cleaning period”. Depending on the amount of snails I have, I’ll use either the tub or the sink.
Cleaning the Snails
2. Cleaning the snails comes before the time of death. You clean the snails after the caging period. Washing and sorting the snails is the biggest manual task of the cook. It can take up to three hours to clean them. You give them a good little scrub on their shell and try to make a last minute moose (frothing). Some sorry arsed Snailers throw little bit of vinegar on them to make them froth. I do this in very small amounts to the last of the snails that have not yet come out of their shell. Note: before the snails go into the pot for cooking you have to make sure that the snail can come out of its shell and that is not dead. Snails that die in the cage during the caging period either die from old age or unsupervised mismanagemant during the caging method. Do not include any snails that are dead or that haven’t cracked their bonnet after the cage !
How do they Die?
3. The Time Of Death. This is very delicate. Once the snails have been cleaned they are put into a large pot of COLD water and heated very slowly. As the water warms up the snails drift off to sleep and as the water gets hotter they die.
That was so delicious, so can we have the recipe?
4. My recipe is not a secret. However I don’t go telling just anyone. Cooking snails takes years of practice. In this region a snailer is only able to cook snails about 4 to 6 times maximum per year. I do it about 4 times a year, depending on how much rainfall we get. This year will be my 9th snailing season. I use fresh pork sausage meat.
Hmmn, I guess that means we can’t have it.
And no Benji, you can’t take home any of Florence’s family record collection!
a little light music to dine on snails by…
No recipe, no records, but a final word from the SH:
I think there is a village rule that does not allow snailing until around the 1st of May. Snail hunting season! This is an old rule however and there is a blind eye towards it as there are not as many snailers as there used to be (Snailers: my word for them). The most discreet way around this rule is to never talk about it, and if you do happen to go snailing in the off-season you should never brag about how many snails you got.
Amongst the existing Snailers there is huge competition. You should never be seen on another snailer’s turf. I did make a slippery visit this morning to check the snail turf of Lily Marty just to see if a few snails had cracked their bonnet but there were none visible. While shifting around on her turf I felt like I was stealing scones from her kitchen window. I didn’t stay long as I didn’t want to be seen. I do have my own snail turfs around the place which are not as good as the snail turfs of some of the older local Snailers, as some are a bit more complicated to access.
The first major rain will bring out the big snails. Apparently we have just gone through the driest winter in one hundred years so I am not familiar with what state the hibernating little buggers will be in. I guess there will not be any major difference to the hibernation state of a snail from previous years but this is still unknown as there is not a living Snailer older than one hundred years to tell me. All I can imagine is that soon the snail hibernation will be ended by a big rain and snailing will be given the green light ! I love the smell of snails in the morning !
Thanks Geoff (and Florence and Evonne!), for your ‘Les Escargots a La Minervoise’. From one Aussie to another, they and the evening were tres, tres bon!