In memory of my beloved grandfather and his Escargots à la vinaigrette!
The culinary world is fascinating! Surely as fascinating as the wine world for me... Like behind the label of a wine, the concept of a dish encompasses the work of men, culture, traditions, geography, history, topography, climatology, chemistry, biology and most other aspects of the natural life in general, all of these combined with time and patience.
As I like to say, our ancestors and even the recent ones (I’m talking about my late grandfather generation), knew how to take the time to properly craft things with their hands and recognize the natural signs of Mother Nature. They put their heart, skill, knowledge and patience in everything they were doing. They were aiming for quality, longevity and practicality.
It was a form of art to see them master all these effective and precise movements to create, craft or/and produce. Things were mostly useful and had a function to obtain a result that was essential in their everyday life. Yet nobody can get away from human nature, we always will have to go further no matter what, isn’t it? It seems that we are unsatisfied by nature.
Nowadays, everything goes way too fast and because our behavior of the last 60 years (since the end of World War II) obliges us to come back to greener methods in order to save our planet and all its living creatures (including us), we are now somewhat more diligently following a calendar of things to do at the right time, at earth pace. It is one of the reasons why in these very critical and transitional times, we are going back to more natural and organic oriented ways.
Now faced with somewhat irreversible situations, people are very slowly starting to comprehend that we’ve been rushing without measuring the bad consequences of our actions on our surroundings and environment. Therefore, they are more inclined to slow down a little and listen a bit more than usual (although I’m not so sure if they are willing to change their bad habits that easily…).
People have given names to things that were part of the natural everyday life of our ancestors. Natural has become “Organic”, “Biodynamic”, “sustainable”, “Lutte Raisonnée”, “recycling”, etc… while it was the way of everyday life before, but was somehow abandoned or forgotten for decades, it has fortunately come back in the past 10-15 years, yet unfortunately it was a necessity to clean up the mess, not to continue tradition.
Using organic ways with astrological science and proper management of the soil and surrounding nature, the biodynamic methods in agriculture and viticulture also follow a calendar of ancient tasks to be done at a given time.
These tasks have been studied and gathered from our ancestor’s methods by recent searchers like Rudolf Steiner (a recommended read “Agriculture: Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture,”) at the beginning of the 20th century, but they existed long before and their efficiency was the result of the amount of knowledge passed on from generations.
It is something that we tend to forget more and more. Yes, we have improved the technology for the better in science and medicine, which is a very good thing, but regarding the agriculture, ancient techniques and methods are back in fashion for their less harmful nature preserving ways.
However, before all that, our ancestors knew when they should plant certain things at certain periods because of the position and influence of the moon, the stars, and the seasons. They also approximately knew, probably more accurately than our televised forecasts, if it will rain or freeze or snow just by looking at the sky and paying close attention to their environment and the behavior of the plants and vegetables in their gardens, orchards and backyards.
It is one of these indefinitely stored moments of my memory of the ancient time and the time spent with my grandfather that I would like to share with you to relive it.
As you may have understood it by now, my maternal grandfather was an important figure in my life, almost like a father figure, a man who unconsciously taught me a lot about my love for wine, people, nature and life in general.
He wasn’t a funny guy, often lonely but never alone. He was a character, someone with presence and charisma, loved by his family and entourage. He was a man of earth, down to earth, practical and genial at the same time. Hard and tough, yet gentle and open minded, with a big heart and always living his door open for whom ever would like to come and enter his home to pay a visit, to talk or eat or drink or just spend some time to share the day, and mostly all the above.
His garden surrounded his house, or let’s say that his house was in the middle of his garden. Living alone, when he retired and the vines at my mother’s house were uprooted more than 20 years ago, his garden became his passion. It is where he concentrated most of his days from the minute the rooster crowed at the break of down to the last minute of the sunset. He was living at farm pace.
This garden was a treasure grove of numerous fruits (pear, apple, cherry, kiwi, lemon, orange, fig, strawberry, blackberry, prune and tomato), countless vegetables (salad, bean, carrot, artichoke, pumpkin, potato, celery, melon, endives, radish, cabbage, etc..), and all sort of plants and herbs (rose, thyme, rosemary, laurel, parsley, cilantro, mint, etc..). He even had numerous rabbits and hens, plus a dog, two cats, some golden fishes in an old pound that he built himself with an old tractor wheel as a frame for the concrete basin next to his old water well.
He was even making his own wine, his own preserve of fruit and vegetable, his own amazing paté, and his own eau-de-vie de fruit and cognac in his immense cellar, which contained, despite a few barrels and an alembic, all sorts of antic furniture and old objects from a 1930 American Hoover (the brand) to a collection of 1970’s moped and even a “Peugeot Triporteur TN 55” from 1957 (that he actually offered me for my 18th birthday and which is identical to the picture bellow). A real collector Alibaba cave!
In short, he had everything at home and grew everything organically by recycling and making his own fertilizer. He was doing everything himself. A winemaker and self-taught countryside man in harmony with his surrounding with a near perfect understanding with Mother Nature. If I could I wish I could be like him. Sometimes I feel that it is in me, dormant and unused… oh well, may be one day.
What I forget to tell you is that he was at time also farming “Escargots”. The escargots of my grandfather remain to this day one of my favorite memories of him and what I used to eat at his house quite a few times a year.
At certain period of the year, during or after a rainy day (like today, it is pouring out there tonight in New York), escargots (or snails in English) were abundant in the shrub wall surrounding his garden and he was a joy to harvest them with him. Of course, too young and impatient to make the difference, I was putting all the ones that I found in a linen bag; and of course he used to curse at me saying that I will never go anywhere or do anything of myself, if I wasn’t more careful and more focus to what I was doing. He didn’t say that in a bad way, he was just trying to aware me that I was becoming like the other kids of my generation: too distracted with lack of attention and patience, and misplaced motivation and attitude.
So in his presence, I used to keep a low profile and slow down, not take my time necessarily but be more efficient and attentive, to try to understand his way, his views and opinions that I valued immensely.
For example, and that is why I started this post by saying: “The culinary world is fascinating!” because, as my grandfather was often saying, in the culinary world and especially in the English language, the name of the meat his not or rarely the same as the name of the animal it comes from: a pig’s meat is pork; a caw’s meat is beef; a calf’s meat is veal; a hen’s meat is chicken; etc…
Yet, there is always something that was intriguing my grandfather (and myself by the same occasion): Why the British and the American, who usually hate calling their food by the regular name of the animal it came from, because they do not like the image of eating a cow, a pig or an hen, continue in restaurant to call snails, “Escargots”?…. Well for the same reason, it is because for them eating a slimy and disgusting snail is a totally different experience than eating the succulent and eclectic “Escargots” a la Française.
Once collected from my grandfather garden, him and I sorted them through one more time to only keep the best with a decent size and from a certain category (Helix Aspersa is the one you should look for), leaving the small and undesirable to continue their journey amongst the salads and the shrub walls.
Hastily, I was genuinely asking: Are we going to cook them today? And once again, I was once again verbally reprimanded for my lack of patience and my ignorance. You have to understand that topping the fact that he knew pretty much everything about everything in his garden, he spent most of his youth reading books and more especially the house’s dictionary and encyclopedia as a past time growing in a poor rural family during war time.
Even only two generation later and countless hours listening to his stories, I have difficulties to imagine how it really was when he was young. Few of us can, I think, things and people especially have changed so much since the Second World War.
So the answer was NO, we won’t cook them today, we will have to wait until they are ready. Like a winemaker nurtures his vines and watches the ripening grapes until the perfect moment for the harvest, my grandfather was putting all the escargots in a closed wooden box with a diamond shape metallic mesh netting at the bottom, with holes small enough to keep the snail inside for about 3-4 weeks before we could eat them.
Nowadays, you go to your local gourmet supermarket and you most likely will find seasoned snails in a frozen carton box, ready to be cooked in your oven or your microwave.
But at my grandfather’s house, it will have been a sacrilege to eat them that way. No, no, we had to wait, nurture them, to feed them salad leafs for 3-4 weeks to purge them and prepare them for a family Sunday feast. You see, snails gorge on pretty much any leafs in nature, but salad leafs give them better taste and clean their inside, ensuring any toxins or impurities are out of their bodies. This cleanses them, ensuring any toxins or impurities are out of their bodies. So patiently I waited, mesmerized by how such a little innocent animal could devour those leafs with such verocity.
Once well fed and ready for the casserole, we stopped nourishing them for 2-3 days, for them to evacuate their excrement. Then we harvested dozens of them from the box to put them in the kitchen sink where we washed them one last time to clean them from any debris and dirt residues.
Most restaurants serve them “à la persillade”, a concoction based with parsley (Persil), garlic, salt and pepper mixed with oil in which you bake the snail, usually the most traditional way. But at “Papi’s house”, we used to call my grandfather “Papi” but most people and neighbors used to named him “Mr. Henri”, we were boiling the escargots in water with herbs, a touch of oil, salt and pepper, garlic and parsley, and even a touch of wine sometime. It was fun and interactive because, while boiling the snails reject murky foam that needed to be removed as often as possible, although my grandfather didn’t see it as a problem when he was cooking them for himself, he was doing it or having me remove it when it was for the family Sunday lunches.
The escargots were ready as soon as the foam ceased to appear at the top of the boiling water. In most houses, the snails would have been transferred in a proper dish, but at Papi’s house there were no “chi-chi” for anything, it was the countryside for god sake! No needs for the mundane snobbery of the city people supposedly more civilized ways! No, no, we just emptied the casserole from the dirty water and put the casserole directly on the table! A touch of mustard vinaigrette and a little pick to dig out the snails from their shells, Et Voila! What a blast and what a feast! Artisanal, rustic and earthy and complex and immensely flavorful, the way I like it!
Like for the wine that I buy, these escargots, even cooked, were still endlessly conversing with my taste buds and excited them by coating my tongue and palate with seamless pleasurable and unforgettable sensations and memories.
This tale of my Papi’s escargots is one of the innumerable fantastic memories that I have from all the precious moments that I spent with my grandfather until he passed away in August last year. Rest in peace Papi (or should I say Mr. Henri), I will never forget you and will always try to be a better man. Promises, I will work on it. This post was for you where ever you are.
Next time, may be I will tell you about how he cured his own leg of “Jambon” Bayonne style or how he was making his paté or fruit preserve, but knowing myself, it will surely take another long post to share the experience…
Ledom du Vin
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