Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Get Stuffed - Two sultry river tales

In defense of snails and others



This may seem merely like a showcase for two bizarre food tales bookending some gastronomic/natural history. And maybe it is. But, dear reader, it’s reach also extends a little beyond that.

The first tale is set in a tiny locals’ café on the banks of France’s Bayonne River. It was August. Although Biarritz just to the south was busy with tourists French and otherwise cooling their well-heeled heels at the beach, sultry unfashionable Bayonne seemed to have been happily abandoned to us and the local Basques.

After a long hot day we were moving about as sluggishly as the river. Debating what to order, mon ami peered across at a huge platter of ice being served at the table beside us. It was covered with what looked like small snails in conical shells and other dark-shelled molluscs. Ah, iced mussels and escargots. So refreshing.

La m ê me chose – the same – my good buddy piped up, and soon a similar platter descended before him in a swirl of deliciously cool air. Suddenly what had not been clearly evident became so. The shelled bivalves we never did make a positive ID of. And there were a few other unknowns, which may have been limpets.

But the critters with the spiral shells we could ID. They were periwinkles and whelks, kinds of sea snails, and talk about fresh. These babies were so fresh they were still moving, the tiny gastropods pulling themselves slowly, ever so achingly slowly across the glacial field of crushed ice they had suddenly found themselves on. I bade my partner bon appétite and waited serenely for my salad.

I’ve never seen a snail since without thinking of that platter of icy death. Come to think of it, I’ve never ordered escargots either. But prior to that, I’d certainly enjoyed my share. In the early ’70s when escargots started popping up on menus in western Canada as a groovy – and I use the term historically – food experience, we used to joke that we only ordered them for the yummy garlic butter, as we sopped up same with big whitish chunks of "French" bread.

Boy, were we behind the times. Snails have been eaten for centuries. In fact, they may have been one of the first animals to become a staple of the human diet. According to Reay Tannahill’s Food in History , despite the lack of garlic butter, snails, along with other small animals like turtles, comprised an important part of the prehistoric food supply gathered by women. The men, by the way, were out hunting larger, more valued chunks of protein, while elders made tools and brewed medicinal potions.