Tuesday, May 24, 2005

An Alsace Snailfest

by Sue Style

Snails have always been popular in Alsace. From the Romans the people learned the secrets of snail husbandry, in particular how to fatten them on selected titbits in specially designed escargotières or snaileries. Irene Kohler in La Cuisine Alsacienne reports that by the Middle Ages, monasteries and convents (notably the Clos des Capucins near Kaysersberg, now the home of Madame Faller et ses filles) were famous for their snails. Charles Gérard in L’Ancienne Alsace à Table notes understandingly that the winters were so long and the Lenten fast so trying that it was little wonder that snails (which were considered as fish for Lenten purposes) played such a large part in the monastic diet.

We’ve had plenty of rain here recently in Alsace and the snails are out in force. It reminded me of the Fête de l’Escargot (Snailfest) held each May in the little village of Osenbach. On this august annual occasion, snails are downed by the ton, with smoked pork and pommes frites to follow. It’s the best sort of village fest, organised each year in rotation by the fire brigade, the football club and the music society. (Insiders claim that the best years to go are the ones when the fire brigade is in charge: the car parking works smoothly, the music’s the best and the firemen really know their snails.) Local musicians play oom-pa-pa music and the assembled snail-festlers take to the floor with gusto. After dinner and dancing there’s the annual Snail Race.

Monsieur Jenny the snail trainer fetches the beautiful striped gastropods from the nearby forest two weeks before the race and feeds them up on lettuces from his allotment. After a couple of weeks of repeatedly scaling the inside of a large yellow plastic bucket, they’re in peak condition. (After the fest they are returned to the forest.) Two strapping lads carry in the Escargodrome, a deeply recessed table-like contraption a bit like one of those Babyfoot tables familiar to all French cafés. The table is straddled by wooden rails for the snails to strut their stuff. The rails are numbered and liberally lubricated with what looks like wine, but is actually water (disguised in an Alsace wine bottle).

Before the race starts the snails are hoisted out of their bucket and placed on the numbered rails. Tension mounts, there’s a roll of drums from the floor and bets are placed. ‘We're creating a blog to publish the results', quips the compère, ‘and there’ll be an action replay later – in slow motion.’ It takes about 20 minutes for the champion snail to get from one end of the rail to the other. Some of them get off to a cracking start, only to fade before the full 50 centimetres have been covered. Others turn round on their rail and go resolutely into reverse. Still others, clearly unimpressed by all the fuss, retreat into their shells and seem to go to sleep.

At the end of it all the winning ticket is announced and the victor delightedly carries off – you guessed it – a supply of snails. The band strikes up again, the fest-goers take to the floor once more, beer and wine is quaffed in liberal quantities and the party goes on far into the night.

copyright Sue Style

Monday, May 23, 2005

Devon crab

Freshly boiled Exmouth crab
photograph by Kim Millon

To my way of thinking, crab is even finer, infinitely sweeter than lobster. And our local Devon crab, landed at Exmouth and boiled straight away on the quay, is the best there is. Exmouth Fisheries is a small family run concern with its own fleet of dayboats that land shellfish daily. They are specialists in cooking and in hand picking crabmeat. Much of it gets sent up country to London as well as to restaurants all over the South West. We try and do our bit for the local economy and eat it as often and as regularly as we can. It’s never ridiculously expensive either: whole boiled crabs go for just a couple of pounds (depending on size) while a luxurious pound of pure hand-picked crab meat sets us back around seven quid.

Going direct to the source is what it’s all about. I like nothing more than to give the Fisheries a ring (01395 272903), then hop on my bike and cycle down from Topsham to the Exmouth seafront to purchase up a couple of beauts, fresh out of the boiler and still piping hot. Picking a crab to extract all the precious meat is a fiddly and time consuming task so more often than not, I’ll choose instead to buy the crab meat already picked. This may seem lazy, I know, but I justify my sloth in the knowledge that the crabs have only been boiled and picked that very morning, and so are near enough dammit as fresh as it’s ever possible to get.

With crab this fresh, you really need do very little. You can of course simply crack the claws with a hammer and present the whole crabs on a plate. Indeed the pleasure of such a simple meal is the fact that it takes so ridiculously long to prise out the tiniest, most stubborn morsels from knuckles, legs and other crevices, nooks and crannies. Indeed, the sweetness of the meat, it sometimes seems, is in direct proportion to the efforts required to prise it out. All you need to add is a finger bowl and copious quantities of dry white wine. To me, this is really what simple, leisurely, relaxed summer dining is all about.

Sometimes we may choose instead to prepare crab Chinese style: cut the crab, still in the shell, into pieces and stir fry with black beans, ginger, spring onions and soy sauce. Or if we want to be fancy, we’ll layer up a ‘tian’ of crab, with tomato and avocado and plate it with some lettuce and a drizzle of basil oil. I love crab cakes, not mixed with mashed potato, but simply Korean style, with chopped spring onions, garlic and ginger, a little flour and beaten egg, to fry on the griddle, pajon style. Sometimes I just mix the crab meat with lime juice, a spoon or two of crème fraîche and some fresh, finely chopped dill. Nada más. We eat it as it is, or pile it into soft rolls. Absolutely sensational!

My all time favourite, however, is linguine with crab, chilli and lemon sauce. What I do is simply this: first gently stew some sliced garlic and a crumbled dried chilli or two in extra-virgin olive oil, then add a glass or two of white wine. Bubble down a bit, then stir in the brown crab meat and the juice of a lemon, and mix to make a creamy emulsion. Cook the linguine until only just al dente, then drain and add to the crab, chilli and lemon sauce. Toss well, then serve immediately, topping each portion of pasta with a spoon or two of white crab meat and a sprinkle of chopped flat leaf parsley.

Though crab may be fished all year round, winter gales often keeps the boats in shore. In any case, crab is most definitely a seasonal treat best at this time of year. Crab is also cheapest during summer, so make the most of this delicacy from the sea while it lasts.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Cygnets (yes, again!)

For the sixth year in a row, a pair of swans have nested in the riverbank underneath our garden wall, just off the Topsham Quay. Yesterday Bella called to us excitedly, "The cygnets have hatched!"

And here they are, less than one day old:

The original story of how they came to us is a saga of trauma, high tide and intrigue...and the culinary pleasures of eggs.

The cygnets have already taken to the water, though the journey down through the reeds and across the wide glistening stretch of mud is not without its hazards. It seems there is a 'runt', a smaller-than-the-rest cygnet that is always lagging behind and getting stuck chest-down in the thick and oozing Tops'm mud. But somehow the little fellow has managed to make it down from and - even more difficult - back up to the nest. Once in the water, they swim as naturally as if they had been doing it all their lives - which in truth they virtually have! They come to our pontoon and we toss them tiny morsels of bread. The mother and father greedily snatch it away, even from their own babies!

First swim
photographs by Kim Millon

Sunday, May 15, 2005


A decade ago I toured Sweden in mid-January with a couple of musicians, presenting electroacoustic concerts in small rural venues. We encountered no blizzards, but I drove my VW Transporter along white high-sided roads that showed ample evidence of newly cleared snow.

One afternoon we arrived at a community center that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. It was of gleaming blond wood, inside and out, with a small auditorium and an all-purpose hall. All was pristine as though newly built, with no sign of life except the caretaker who let us in. We set up the equipment and waited for an audience which, we feared, we might well outnumber.

Come performance time, the auditorium was nearly full, perhaps a hundred and fifty people. And even more miraculously, they all proved to be enthusiastic devotees of avant-garde music!

After the concert we trooped into the hall, where shiny bare tables were groaning with piles of plates, bottles of good Belgian beer, baskets of crusty bread and huge deep two-foot bowls full of of fresh prawns, piled up mountainously above the rim. Now that’s what I call presentation! By the end of the evening we were all full and the bottles, baskets and bowls were empty.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

To blog or not to blog...

That is the question...

And it's a good one. Why bother to do it?

Eat Words is a worldwide community of independent professional food writers. All of us mainly make our living selling words to editors and publishers. Our gathering space, our virtual common room, is the Eat Words email discussion list, a closed list for members only. It's here, safe within ourselves, that we freely share our enthusiasms, passions and gripes, our professional and personal knowledge, contacts and friendships.

Why then, this blog? The answer, I suppose, is 'because it's there'. Because emerging new media technologies create opportunities for collaborative publishing that didn't exist before. Because sometimes our words go beyond ourselves and deserve to be shared with a wider audience. Because we write and want to be read. We blog, therefore we are.

Personally it's my view that our 'blogarithms', as John calls them, ought to remain mainly spontaneous and we should all feel confident to use this space freely to express ourselves on any food-related issues that concern and interest us. Remember, this is a medium that is even more ephemeral, more here-today-gone-tomorrow by nature than even something as fleeting as an electronic web page. Eats, shoots and blogs? Nah. Life is too short to worry about the occasional split infinitive or misplaced comma, no? Let's just do it! (And of course if we are so inclined, we can always correct, revise, edit — even delete — later...)

So I simply urge us all to play with words: to put them up, take them down, chew them up, gnaw them to bits, roll them around in our mouths, swallow 'em or spit 'em out. Above all taste, savour and enjoy the beauty - and the sheer fun - of language and food!

I'm certainly looking forward to sharing this journey with you - and with our readers, whoever and wherever in the world you may be.


Monday, May 09, 2005

Suet Generis

Aha! Just what I've been hoping for - a good excuse to link to one of my very favorite blogs of all, the Journal of the Janus Museum. The Journal's normal beat is not what you could call a normal beat, really, covering as it does an astonishingly and unpredictably wide range of subjects; this entry, however, is right up (or down) our alley: some esoteric lore about suet puddings. One of my very favorite topics of all.

(And incidentally, credit where credit is due: the subject line for the present post was coined many years ago by none other than Tibor Szégy-Légy himself, now the author of the blog in question; and he said it about... [blush]... me. Now that's heady stuff, let me tell you.)

Friday, May 06, 2005

Sharpness is all

My favourite knife
As I came out of my office this morning to walk around the corner to the house for a spot of lunch (the two buildings are conveniently adjacent), I heard the insistent grind of the knife sharpener. Every four weeks, this itinerant business, called 'The Happy Edge' comes to our town, parks up just around the corner from us beside Topsham quayside, opens the tailgate of the small van, and sets to work. The business is aptly named: Ian, the knifesharpener, is a seemingly always cheerful fellow and he clearly enjoys his work. All the restaurateurs make their way here (or else he goes and fetches their knives, carrying them carefully on a tray) and he settles in for a good few hours, grinding and sharpening knives, cleavers, food processor blades, scissors. As he grinds, the sparks fly off the fast-spinning, coarse-stone wheel and knives blunted from honest use are restored to perfect sharpness once again.

How often do knives need sharpening? The chefs have them done every four weeks, Ian tells me. For home use, maybe every three to six months is enough, he added. I probably go to him far less frequently than that, using a domestic knife sharpener in between times. But it's true: at some point knives simply don't respond to such home remedies and there is no other option but to have them professionally reground and sharpened.

And why not? There is something hugely satisfying in seeing the carbon steel blade of a knife gradually alter in form and shape, its ground-down wear marking the years of use in the preparation of countless meals enjoyed. And indeed, for just a pound a knife, the pleasure of having a rackful of professionally sharp knives at hand is immense! Notoriously tough-skinned tomatoes can be cut into the finest dice; herbs and leafy vegetables are transformed into a chiffonade in an effortless jiff; meat slices like butter: we julienne to our hearts' content.

It's not just a question of efficiency and ease of effort, either. Sharpness is a happy state of mind. It indicates that we are on the ball, quick-witted, on top of things. "He's really sharp," we say, about someone who is nobody's fool. The striker who never misses a chance in front of goal is said to be "razor sharp". "Cutting edge" technology is absolutely up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art. Being "on the knife edge", on the other hand, is a dangerous and exhilarating equilibrium wherein you could fall either way to your doom should you stray off the straight and narrow, the precarious knife edge of existence. Like a knife, we whet our appetite, sharpening it in the happy anticipation of eating something inexpressibly delicious.

Knives, too, become an extension of ourselves. Certainly for your average garden-variety hoodlum, choice of knife may say alot about who you are: Size undoubtedly matters! But even for the rest of us, we all have our favourite, the knife that we - and we alone - always feel most intuitively comfortable with. Kim prefers a lovely stainless steel fish filleting knife for most all general use: it is the knife she automatically reaches for. For me, though, the blade is just way too flexible, not solid enough. I rarely if ever use it. I wonder, is this because Kim is by nature at once delicately fine as well as flexibly accommodating? Nello once gave me his favourite knife, a Victorinox paring knife that is as unbending and firm as Kim's is bendy. Nello's is excellent when it has a sharp edge, but being stiff and made from much thicker metal, it seems to lose its sharpness more quickly than others. Nonetheless I love it all the same, not least for the memories: or is it just because I'm dull?

My Korean grandmother once told me it is bad luck to give someone a knife. Once she gave her daughter-in-law a knife and, said Halmoni, she - the daughter-in-law - forever turned against her. On another occasion, Halmoni gave a friend a knife and afterwards she never felt the same towards the friend. After we had spent some months working together with Halmoni preparing our book "Flavours of Korea with stories and recipes from a Korean grandmother's kitchen", she wanted to give me her favourite knife, a touching and thoughtful present from one not naturally given over to such gestures. "First," she demanded, "You pay me one dollar." Perplexed, I handed over the bill. "There," she sighed with relief, "I sold you my knife. Now there will be no bad blood between us."

Halmoni's is still the knife I use - I reach for - just about every day of my life. I cut, I chop: therefore I am. And now, thanks to Ian and the Happy Edge, that favourite blade, forever linked to my past, to my very identity, is once again restored to perfect sharpness.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Parable for Election Day

One autumn the spokesmen of three Powers, upon whose decision hung the destiny of the world ‑ so precariously is our planet balanced ‑ met at a town on the Riviera, and there they were to drink Madeira, dine, and talk for a whole week. Their names I have forgotten. From Paris were dispatched, by gracious assent of the Faisan d'Or, Messrs. Pless and François to look after all but the Treaty itself.

All went smoothly until the close of the second day. François roasted for the dinner half a young antelope. Had it been fed on fern shoots, grass, and reeds, it would have been perfect; but that dry summer in the Tyrol it had fed overlong on apple twigs and herbage that was papery rather than lush. François was distressed.

The solution was to serve it not with salt alone but with an Espagnol sauce. In a great saucepan he fried meat and bones of beef, veal and ham, with onions, celery, carrots, turnips, fines herbes, cloves, allspice, cannel, and pepper. Then he put in the thick roux, then poultry carcasses and tomatoes. It is a tedious sauce to make – a long task and involved. After two hours he put in sherry.

François tasted it. What did it lack? He had a palate for flavors as some have an ear for music. Aha, coriander!

Since all was prepared except the dessert – a soufflé of pineapple to be ovened at the last minute – he went out, mounted upon a Foreign Minister's bicycle, and pedalled into the cool air in quest of the herb which wearied the Israelites so extremely in their manna that they sighed for the fleshpots and fish of Egypt. The shops had none of it. He rode on, sniffing past many little gardens and calling out to all the old ladies sitting on their doorsteps. He bought some at last, a handful, and stuck it in his hat and pedalled home.

He went straight to that saucepan in the kitchen, and found it empty! His senses almost left him. He braced himself and walked into the dining hall.

“François,” a minister plenipotentiary called out, “this is a soup finer, much finer, than any we ever tasted before.”

François drew himself up with such dignity that he seemed two feet higher than his four feet nine. His voice shook with emotion.

“That, Messieurs, was an Espagnol sauce – still incomplete.”

He bowed himself out, pedalled to the station, and caught the train for Paris.

“Long before anyone else,” said Pless, “François knew that conference was doomed to failure.”


Idwal Jones, High Bonnet, pp120-1

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A vineyard lunch

Geoff begins planting 6000 Pinot Noir vines at Pebblebed Vineyard, Ebford (just a mile or so outside of Topsham) this weekend. We've invited Vino members and supporters to come and help and dangled the carrot of a good vineyard lunch to entice them to join us.

Yours truly is helping to prepare the lunch. What to give a troop of hungry vine planters? It needs to be good, easy-to-prepare, easy-to-eat, but not quite so good that the 'workers' who show up for an extended lunch end up never getting back into the vineyard to work...

As there is a mountain of vine prunings from the winter, it seems obvious to me that we ought to make a big fire in a half-oil-drum BBQ, let it burn down to embers and then cook steaks 'aux sarments'. I'll therefore pick up a slab of ribeye that I can cut into reasonably thin steaks à la francaise. These can be simply seasoned, then quickly seared over the fire of vine embers to stuff into baguettes. I'll make a red wine and shallots jus, a sort of faux sauce bordelaise to spoon over the meat and bread: this is food to eat standing up, that you can tear into with your bare hands and wash down with a tumbler of full, gutsy red wine, our Cascina Fontana Dolcetto in fact.

But what else? What else is easy to do, easy to eat? Don't really want to turn it into fork-and-knife nosh. Maybe some new potatoes, scrubbed, boiled, dressed in new season olive oil and a crushing of Maldon sea salt. A salad of cherry tomatoes, mini mozzarella balls, torn leaves of basil dressed in olive oil and balsamic. Perhaps a tub of guacamole and a pile of wheat tortillas to heat up over the fire - the guac could be spread on the warm tortillas, then some thin slices of the grilled meat, a squeeze of lime...

Any other ideas?

And if anyone cares to join us this Sunday, to help plant or to cook and eat, you are very welcome!

Pebblebed Vineyard, Ebford, Devon


Sunday, May 01, 2005


Every day, says the Observer, 10,000 people start new blogs. It looks as though we Word Eaters are about to join the virtual tsunami.

There's a very good reason why newspapers are paying so much attention to the phenomenon: they are themselves becoming high-class blogsheets whose columns are filled, not with reportage, but with a modicum of research and a mass of opinion.

There was a time when major newspapers prided themselves on the number of on-the-spot reporters they had on staff; Colonel McCormick's Chicago Tribune was invincibly reactionary, but it maintained an army of reporters in the world's major and even minor cities who were often allowed to tell the truth, providing it was in code and tucked away somewhere near the bottom of page six.

Today such a staff, even of free-lance stringers, is regarded as an extravagance. News desks are more likely to be exactly that – offices with a few people surfing the net for items to rewrite sufficiently to disguise their second-hand sources. Reporting from Iraq is notoriously carried on by the deaf and blind in solitary fortresses, but even peaceful venues are increasingly covered vicariously by distant Buddha-like eminences offering profound analyses of a few news items they've just retrieved from Google News.

Google News is in itself a media education. It continually scans around 3500 sources, a search of which yields short phrases together with metalinks. I have a daily search emailed to me on "food uk". It's interesting to see how many topics cite dozens or even hundreds of sources which, if you follow them up, prove to be clones of a handful of quasi-original articles with strong family resemblances even among themselves. Soon the last reporter will die and the media will implode.

But be not downhearted! We Word Eaters are a global squad of on-the-spot foodies able to report at first hand what the lifestyle media only gossip about. And there's no Board of Directors to decide that we're a useless extravagance who can be replaced by a search engine.