I did it! Despite all my apprehensions and vociferous “no’s”, I finally took a deep breath and yanked the poor creature out of its buttery grave and into my mouth!
Yes, I ate escargot! That choicest of French delicacies, hailed by the world’s culinary snobs. It was doused in a herby, garlicky butter and presented to me in a (what I guess is fancy for the French) steel plate, with a rather unnerving culinary apparatus- akin to the forceps one sees at routine appointments of the ‘lady’ kind!
Ever since I saw Guillame Brahimi describe French butter flanked by the ever-busy Le Comptoir du Relais, I was hell bent on visiting it while in Paris. It would have helped if he was still there when I did. But I settled. It’s a quintessential Bistro- tables and chairs at one finger distance from each other on a busy street, a room full of sharp-nosed waiters and waitresses holding trays of impeccably plated food high above the seated guests’ heads, in what can only be described as a Parisian food dance. And delicious aromas wafting from the hallowed kitchen. The guests themselves seem like something out of a vintage Parisian postcard. Hands carelessly cascading over their chairs as they laugh, eyebrows raised, words appropriately punctuating the air and the sight of smoke to cast a romantic feel to the goings-on (Parisians love tobacco). To sit in a bistro is to experience Paris at its voyeuristic best.
Le Comptoir is also the only place I dared to let my guard down and try Escargots or snails. You see, I love them. I was once a pet-deprived child who settled for garden snails when it was unbearably clear that my pleas for a bear or a boa weren’t going to be delivered in my Christmas haul. Snails, especially the plump ones inside the school garden were my little secret. They couldn’t speak, they stayed right where they were for ages, so no chance of anyone finding out and they were, in my eyes, the most beautiful creatures to leave a trail of slime on my hands, ever.
Cut to Le Comptoir and the cheery waitress encouraging my husband’s greed for the poor snails with a smack of her lips –high praise in French cuisine.
‘How are they served?’ he asked.
‘With budderrr an’ erbs an’ sea salt and garleek’ she replied.
She had him at butter.
He looked longingly at me to agree. Maybe it was the angle of the mid-day sun in Paris, maybe it was the fact that we got this table from a long line of people who missed it and watched us enviously from another café across the street- but I melted and agreed. Love makes you do strange things. Love and the promise of Beef Cheek Stew, post the escargots did me in!
What were they like? Well, to me food is a lot about texture. So if you like the texture of squid or mussels, then this is probably something you’ll like. I gave the snails a fair chance- I ate two, before my conscience packed my tastebuds away. The fact that I had to use a tool to gouge out a being from its home and then see that it is the exact pretty shape inside as the shell it comes from. The fact that the snail would have trusted me to care for it and bring it cozy mud, before it was dunked in smouldering butter- I stopped. Having said that, they taste pretty good. And the French really do wondrous things with butter. It had absorbed the flavour of the escargot while maintaining its herby taste – mild, punctuated and balanced. My husband offered me the third one- even gouging it out for me and holding it up lovingly for me to bite. But I couldn’t.
It was off to the beef cheeks for me. I love cows, but it had been a long time since I had seen one on my plate in India.