All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Unfulfilled promises

Two Helix aspersa Garden snails matingImage via Wikipedia
You are a Frenchman with a British neighbour. Her behaviour begins to intrigue you.
Night after night, all through the summer, when all honest citizens should be watching television, you see torchlight, moving methodically round the garden. Occasionally you hear her cursing. Then she goes indoors again. Night after night.

What, you ask yourself, would you be doing if you were out in your garden at night with a flashlamp?
The obvious answer is that she is burying her money so that the taxman can't get his hands on it. She obviously fears fire in the house which would destroy the traditional mattress. Chapeau, les anglais! They can learn a thing or two from us after all!
But we French can always go one better. You find the catalogue from the travelling tools van and look at the price of metal detectors.

You remember, however, that she owns a metal detector. You have seen the kids using it when the family visit in the summer. No need, then, to buy one. You can borrow hers, and nip over there when she goes shopping.

Perhaps, however, she is using it herself to try to find gold buried in the last war by the then owner, who died without heirs and was decidedly dotty by the time she passed on. Obviously, she would not want to be seen in daylight looking for treasure.
Why, then, did she let the kids try it out?

Goodness only knows with these foreigners. You return to the television.

Well, what I am actually doing, risking life and limb on the uneven ground in the dark, is snailing. And slugging, though the less said about these dreadful orangey red monsters the better. Even the ducks won't eat them.
I get buckets of the things - snails, that is - and another haul when I trawl the stone garden walls after rain.
They can decimate my veg garden in very short order and as I believe in attack being the best form of defence, since they come out at do I.
It's a bit like the phrase I remember being applied  to the football player Norman 'bite your leg' Hunter.
'Get your retaliation in first.'

My idea is to feed the snails to the ducks, who think this is a great treat, but I have to be careful that I only feed as fast as the ducks can eat otherwise the snails live to eat my lettuce another day. I also have to remember to put a cover and a huge stone on top of the bucket to prevent its' occupants from doing a bunk.

Didier's idea is that I should collect the snails, so that his wife can clean them and they can be eaten.
My postlady has the same idea, only differing in that it is her grandmother who will be cleaning them.
There are more than enough for all contenders...ducks, Didier and the postlady.
However, all of them only want the big ones.
What am I supposed to do with the rest?

The postlady suggested keeping them in cages to fatten up...but I'd probably have to declare this activity as being agricultural in nature and would end up having to pay what is called the 'cotisation de solidarite'' to the Mutuelle Sociale Agricole. In other words, coughing up to contribute to farmers' pensions without touching a penny myself as I would not have contributed over enough years to qualify.

I remember receiving the first form from the MSA - the farmers' pension fund - in my second year in France. It required details of how many rabbits I kept, chickens ditto and so on ad infinitum. It demanded money.
I showed it to Monsieur Untel, seed rep extraordinaire, who said I'd got it because the land that went with my house was classed as agricultural. I needed to change its' use to leisure.
He kindly took me to the local office and sorted it out - not without difficulty, because I clearly remember him saying at one point
'Does she look like she keeps pigs?
Obviously I did not. My land was reclassified and I never saw the form again, but I have no wish to be denounced for illicit snail fattening activities at my age.

What I actually do with the small ones is to take a walk and release them near the duckstealer's place.

In France, in the summer, all sorts of villages have fetes and fairs, each featuring a particular speciality in the gastronomic line.
There is the melon fair, the giant cassoulet fair, the mussels and chips fair, the ham fair and, of course, the snail fair.
In the past it was the women related to the organisers who would prepare the snails, collected by the efforts of just about everyone who owned a bucket, and Didier's wife showed me how it was done.

The snails had to be purged of anything toxic they might have picked up and Didier's method was to put them in the drum of an old washing machine so all the muck could  drain through the holes.
After about five days, he would put the hose into the drum and wash as much muck off them as possible, and then transfer them to buckets for a more drastic wash.

His wife then took over. She would lay the snails in the huge stone trough outside the house and layer them with salt, turning them thoroughly. The snails would release the mucus, their defence mechanism, and she would keep turning them until she was satisfied that this process had been competed. She would announce that this process was  very good for softening the hands.
I am waiting for the cosmetics industry to harness this knowledge, but cannot even begin to imagine how the publicity would be phrased.

The snails would be hosed off, then boiled for three minutes after which the process of extricating them from the shells would begin. She used a two tined fork - a bit like a pickle fork. I was fine with this part, having extracted winkles from their shells at the seaside shellfish stands in my youth.

When she cooked snails for the family, she did not return them to their shells, just reheated them in butter with a little garlic and lemon juice, but for the fair, she would wash and dry the shells, put two snails back into every shell and stuff the solid garlic butter - butter mashed with the garlic and lemon juice and chopped parsley added - into the shell.

Nowadays, the snail fair still exists, but the product is bought in, ready prepared. No more soft hands in the village.

I had never intended to eat a snail, but they do turn up on the dinner tables of rural France, and I have, accordingly, eaten them.
It is yet another of the unforeseen hazards of life in the country. I do not agree that they are better than fillet steak, as Guy proclaims - though, given the nature of some of the fillet steak I have eaten in France he might have more of a point than I think - and I do reckon that all you taste is the butter, which is why I prefer the simmered version to the in-shell option, where there is proportionally more butter and I get indigestion.
Madeleine told me never to eat snails in the evening, and, as usual, her advice was sound.
At lunchtime, I can walk off the night, never, and bending over to harvest snails after a meal of their colleagues would be fatal.

What brought about this post?
Well, you know how something becomes so familiar that you take it for granted?
I was messing about with the blog the other day and noticed that in the subtitle I had promised wine, notaires, expats, estate agents, chasseurs, maires, presidents, gendarmes...all of whom or which have appeared...but also sex and snails.
Which hadn't.
This is snails.

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