There's been a lot of talk about food in the Zeitgeist lately and, in these parts, talk about hunting: the local game supper (bear, deer, moose et al.); who shot at a deer with a huge rack, and missed; whose posted land was violated by out-of-state felons with guns. All this has brought back the snail hunts of my childhood.
My grandparents' farm was on a fertile valley just south of the Pyrenees, in the westernmost province of Catalonia. Summers were dry, and on the rare occasions when rain threatened, we would gather on the covered terraces at the top of the house and watch the storm come galloping towards us: thunder and lightning, followed by fat drops splashing down on the dusty roads. And the mineral smell of rain on parched ground.
It never lasted very long, but afterwards, while the last drops were still falling from the broad leaves of the fig trees, we would get our baskets and go snail hunting. A long, straight dirt road led from the house to the threshing floor and barn. The road was bordered with apple and pear and fig trees, and blackberry brambles, and long grasses, and that is where we looked for snails.
These were not the fattened molluscs, already evicted from their shells, that you can buy in cans in upscale markets. These were real wild snails (cargols in Catalan), their shells less than an inch in diameter, who after a rain came out from their hiding places and climbed to the very tops of the dessicated grass stems, leaving a slight iridescent trail behind them.
It seemed in those days that anything good had to be waited for a long time--Christmas, summer, a new pair shoes--and snails for supper were no exception. After the hunt, we turned the snails over to my grandmother, who would decant them into special baskets--vertical, narrow containers where the snails would fast for several days to empty out their digestive tracts.
When the time was right, my grandmother would announce the cargolada, or snail bash. My mother and her sisters would go into action, wrapping aprons around their middles, picking parsley, chopping garlic, fetching bottles of tomato conserve from the attic. While the maid scrubbed the shells with a brush, my grandmother would prepare the salt bath that would rid the snails of the last vestiges of slime.
One of the reasons I loved a cargolada was the sound. No other dish was so musical. The shells being dumped out of the baskets, swished around in the salt bath, stirred in the pot, made a unique and musical clacking. This, together with the smell of garlic and parsley sauteeing in the big red earthenware cassola, and the continuous arguing of the cooks ("don't burn the olive oil! don't stain your blouse!") filled my senses to overflowing.
Like all mollusk dishes, the cargolada didn't take long. I helped set the table while my grandfather swatted the heat-dazed flies in the dining room. And then we sat down, ten or twelve of us, glasses of rosy wine at each place (my water barely tinted, but enough to taste), and the cassola was brought in and everybody went ohhhh! My mother sliced thick slices of bread for sopping up the sauce. My aunt passed around little sword-shaped plastic toothpicks.
A portion (very small, snails supposedly being hard to digest) was ladled, clack, clack, onto my plate. I picked up a shell, grabbed my green sword, stabbed the snail and gave a little yank. At the spot where the muscular foot joined the beginning of the intestine, I pressed down with my thumb and the two separated neatly. I popped the snail into my mouth, discarded the shell, soaked some bread into the sauce, drank a little pink water....
For dessert there was melon sweet as only dry climates make them, picked by my grandfather and sliced by my mother. I always interpreted my mother's slicing of the melon as a sign of her special standing in the household.
I have since lost my taste for snails. The idea of buying them in cans, then stuffing them into shells, seems as absurd as wrapping orange peel around the orange sections in Southern ambrosia. Even in Spain, the last time I attended a cargolada, the thought of those little snails starved, brined, and cooked alive made me concentrate on the sauce alone.
The thick sauce of my childhood, redolent of garlic, parsley and tomato and, because this was Catalonia, the sweetness of ground almonds. And a big slice of bread, crusty on the outside and yeasty on the inside. And my grandmother looking over at me saying "Don't eat too fast now. Chew it well."