On Escargot

This is an extract from a short book I wrote some time ago. I have had various parts of it published in various places, but never the entire thing:

On Escargot

Arthur Day went through a phase of snail addiction – Raising them himself, like a true Roman decadent, on bay, wine, and a spicy chiffonnade. He naturally preferred the Burgundy snail, or Helix pomatia over its slightly more coarse cousin, the Petit-Gris, or Helix aspersa, but at first did not so much as consider the challenge of cultivating it. And, as far as he was concerned, the Gros-Gris, or Helix aspersa maxima, was absolutely out of the question, with its dark mantle and generally uncouth persona. This snail might do for the commercial growing houses and those counterfeit gourmets whose faces appear like peruked balls of suet on the TV screen, but for him it held no more charm than a Van Gough painting reproduced on a coffee mug.

As he applied his little trident to a plate of well-prepared escargots à la bourguignonne, he would dream of his service to the world: A new breed of snail, one with all the nicety of the Burgundy, but as easy to cultivate as the Gros-Gris. He set himself to heliciculture with an admirable vigour. One March, he personally went to France, to the forests around Brive, and captured two hundred prime specimens of the Burgundy. He flew them home in a series of specially prepared, climate-controlled boxes. He was up to the challenge. The snails were put in cages containing a beautiful, black soil he had trucked in from his brother’s ranch. He watched the creatures with great interest as they slithered over the moist dirt, feeling a strange kinship to their hermaphroditic state. By May he had two thousand five hundred delightful little Burgundies, each one as delicate as a dew drop and as precious as a jewel. These he put in a ten square meter greenhouse, within which grew rows of young lettuce, chicory and basil interspersed with finger bowls of a very raw Slovenian wine called Terrain.

As the snails matured he pulled out the best: those whose shells were the largest in diameter and possessed of the most distinct and uniform coloring. These virgin mollusks he set aside in individual boxes, to hibernate until the next season. Those which remained he harvested as they matured, sinking them in boiled rose water for 3.5 minutes and then removing the bodies from the shell. The hepatopancreas of these snails were particularly delicious, so he let them remain, transferring the whole bodies into chilled water which had been previously dosed with sea salt. Kneaded together with butter, garlic, pepper, shallots and parsley, then returned to the sluiced shells, his effort produced many a good meal.

The following spring he took his breeders, the finest of the previous year’s crop, and set them in pairs amongst little beds of daffodils. He smiled as he saw the snails approach each other, extend their liquidy antennas and coquettishly touch, often drawing back with sudden, shy impulses. They would meet upon a slender stalk, dip and crone their shiny little heads and then, together, seemingly arm in arm, circle the flower’s corolla and disappear beneath the nearest petal.

All of the snails were gorgeous, but two were particularly remarkable. The colour of their shells were perfectly uniform and their size was incredible: One had a shell diameter of 74mm, the other of an astounding 80mm. He named them Adam and Eve.

In high spirits he wrote the following letter to Professor Bliez-Rien, president of the International Academy of Heliciculture, in Paris:

Dear Monsieur Bliez-Rein,

I am an amateur snail farmer currently residing in the United States of America. Though the country is rough, there are yet a few of us who are not totally devoid of higher aims and appreciations. Your book, translated into my tongue as Diverse Inspections into the Finer Mollusks of Gaul has been, to say the least, a great inspiration to me. Its pages are frayed and its spine cracked, as is the proper fate of a literary masterpiece.

But let me not swallow your precious minutes with unsatisfactory praise.

To come to the point: I have bred a fine series of Helix pomatia, two of which measure, respectively, 74mm and 80mm each in shell diameter. I attribute this great size to a number of factors, the foremost being the soil they were initially housed in. It is rich in calcium and numerous nice minerals and, to my knowledge, nothing like it is attainable outside a certain region of the United States which, due to familial delicacy, I will leave unnamed.

I have every reason to believe that this pair, were they to successfully mate, would produce a unique breeding race, with fixed traits. If luck is with me, and these two prodigies bear fruit, I plan to name the new race the Flaxen Bliez-Rein, in due respect to my mentor in the art of heliciculture -Provided, of course, that I have your kind consent.

If by any slim chance a period of a few days or more could be hedged out of your undoubtedly chock-a-block schedule, a personal rendezvous with these snails would, I venture to think, be of the greatest interest to you. I need not mention that all expenses entailed by such a voyage would be gratefully born by,

Your Faithful Apprentice,

Arthur Day

Just subsequent to posting this letter, Arthur went for a few days abroad. Upon returning he was met in the living-room by his house keeper, Theodore.

“Your sister is here,” the old man said darkly. “She came last night.”

“Oh, she is back from China is she?” Arthur flipped through his mail. “Had enough of the old fung-shui I imagine.”

“She—” He broke off, a look of despair in his eyes.Arthur had an awful foreboding. “What did she do?” he asked in a troubled voice. “What did Katie do?”

At that moment Katie herself entered the room, her bosom expanding a blue, rather coarse jacket which might have belonged to Mao Tse Tung during his boyhood. She was barefoot. Her blonde hair was done up in a long braid.

“Arthur!” she cried, galloping up and throwing her arms around him. “I missed you so much! China was wonderful! I practiced tai-chi! I drank green tea – ten cups a day! The people are so real – So human!”

“You don’t say.”

“I do!”

Theodore cleared his throat: “I was just about to tell him—“

“Don’t worry Theodore,” she said, turning and grasping his hand in both of hers. “Arthur won’t be angry with you. It’s all over with now.”

“Angry about what?” Arthur asked.

“Oh, your flowers,” she said, smiling. “When I came no one was here – Theodore must have been in town buying a hose or something. I went straight to the greenhouse and saw those beautiful beds of daffodils (they are my favourite flowers you know). Well, I stuck my face down and you’ll never guess what I saw! – Snails! Snails everywhere! Big ugly snails!”

Arthur sighed. He felt sick.

“Oh, its ok dear!” she continued. “I know you must be mad at Theodore for not noticing them, but I took care of it. I pulled them off – every one – and threw them outside – onto the rocks – behind the back porch.”

“Thank you,” he murmured, with a corrugated smile.

With steps somewhat agitated, he went outside to the spot she had indicated. A group of crows was gathered around. The snails were scattered pell-mell, their delicate shells broken, bodies damaged, oozing, disappearing down the pointed beaks of the scavengers.

Arthur clasped his hands. He felt the thinness of a letter in one. Opening it, he read the following, which was written in the swift, slanting hand of Professor Bliez-Rein:

Dear Mr. Day,

It would be difficult to describe the emotion I felt upon reading your letter. One more skilled in your English tongue might be able to find the proper words, but for me, a man nursed on frog legs, such a thing is impossible: I am thrilled with your high regard of me, though I doubt very much that I deserve it.

Regarding the snails – As for the snails Mr. Arthur Day: If your measurements are correct, and the starters were indeed Helix pomatia, then I can say without the slightest reserve: You have bred miracles! The smaller of your snails (I believe this is your Eve) comes in a full 21 mm larger than any I have ever seen or heard of in all my forty-seven years of heliciculture. The very thought of it makes me restless to the extreme. The words Flaxen Bliez-Rein make me giddy, my head light – like so much Champagne.

Needless to say, I would like to pay your establishment a visit as soon as it is reasonably convenient for yourself. As for me: All work is as ashes compared to this. Your offer of financial assistance is warmly accepted.

I eagerly await your confirmation.

Kindest Regards,
Pr. Bliez-Rein
Président, International Acadéemie de Héliciculture


One Response to On Escargot

  1. […] On a Modern Epicure The following story is a continuation of this piece about escargot. It was originally published in Gothic.net (who never did manage to pay me for it) […]

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