Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Boiled snails (Χοχλιοί - σαλιγκάρια - βραστοί)

I'm a four-time godmother. My oldest godson is travelling with the Greek merchant navy while my youngest (who's taller than me) is preparing to go to high school next year. We visit his family quite often, as he also has younger brothers who my children can play with. His family represents the epitome of Cretan hospitality: you cannot visit them without being treated to a cooked meal. My father and his mother's mother were first cousins, which is how we met. We eventually realised that somewhere down the line of our ancestors, my mother was also related to his father: one of my great-great-greats was the sibling of one of his great-great-greats, but which great-great it was has now been lost in the passage of time. Don't think you can get away with not calling them up beforehand and arriving unexpected; while Niko orders the souvlakia, Nicky will start laying the table (my godson's name is Nikita, to add to the confusion). This is why we always call them up before we visit; if you have to eat, then you may as well eat healthy food.

Niko comes from Ramni, a remote mountain village in Apokoronas, the easternmost region of Hania. Very few people now live in Ramni; when he was young (he's my age), the village sustained a large primary school. Ramni is a picturesque village - if you like to look at bare mountains from the front yard of your house, that is. The sound of a car is rare; a baby's cries have not been heard for nearly a decade.

Niko is very proud of the fact that he left school at thirteen, and still managed to secure a teaching position (carpentry) in a state-run rehabilitation centre for disabled people, through his local parliamentary representative (the infamous Greek 'meson' can still work miracles - look at what lengths some people go to, to try to secure their future through it), as two of his brothers also did. In the winter, he wears a black shirt, symbolic of the Cretan farmer, matching his twirling moustache very well, while in the summer, he wears a sleeveless singlet. He claims he never feels the cold, and never gets sick. Niko loves to tell people about how he met Nicky:

"I visited a go-between in Akrotiri about a potential bride. But the go-between told me that the bride wasn't available because she had an older sister, and if I wanted, I could marry her instead. 'But her sister's very fat,' I complained to the go-between. 'She has to go first,' he answered. At that very moment, a girl was passing by outside the house with her mother. They were bringing the sheep into their pen for the night. I asked the go-between if she was available for marriage. He told me she was, and that's how I met my wife."

I'm still trying to work out what took me so long, given such a simple formula. Obviously, I was never around at the right time.

Snails are sold in Crete at the supermarket, in little net bags, in the same place where you would normally find fresh fruit and vegetables. There are also roadside dwellers selling them from the back of their pick-up trucks. Snails are a particularly Cretan affair, as Nancy points out, most other Greeks preferring to give them a miss. I prefer to think of them as land shellfish; we eat oysters and limpets, clams and scallops, so why not eat snails? Some edible varieties are also found in the sea. My mother used to collect snails from our garden in Wellington on a rainy day, of which there were many in WWW (wet and windy Wellington – and I do miss a good rain shower). The only difference between the Cretan and Wellingtonian snails was the size – Kiwi snails don’t need fattening up; they are ready on collection. The only reason they were placed in a potato sack to feed on flour and pasta is so they can empty their bowels, eating only foods known to be harmless to humans. I must admit that snails were the only food
my mother cooked that I never ate. I now regret this immensely; here I am, living in the land where she was born, picking, storing and cooking snails for my husband.

In Crete, snail gathering takes place once the first spring rains start, after which the snails need to be confined in a well-aerated container to fatten up and 'seal': once they have had their fill, in combination with the hot weather, they find a comfortable position away from direct sunlight in a dry spot, and stick themselves onto a flat surface where they form some kind of web over their shell. They are edible at this stage, right until the middle of autumn. After that, they start moving around and mating, at which stage they shouldn't be eaten because they emit an unappetising aroma. I'm only telling you what I've been told, and I’ve only eaten them in their season.

When we visit my godson, 'hohlious' along with horta are always on the menu; Niko ensures that he's gathered them all before anyone else. He gets his wife to boil them up just after we arrive. I suppose he’s never heard about the parasite that snails may harbour, causing a rare form of meningitis if the snails are consumed undercooked. But then again, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet – Tamus creticus is supposedly poisonous, even though Cretans have been consuming it for centuries, while the berries of Solanum nigrum (stifno - black nightshade) are considered poisonous, even though the literature states that they are edible. Eek - I'll stick to what my ancestors have taught me.

The snails are placed in warm water to see if they open up and move around, which ascertains that they are alive. Then they are boiled (in their shell) in salted water, just enough to cover them, with an onion and a tomato chopped into the water. Once cooked, they are strained (they're still in their shell) and sprinkled with fresh rosemary. The meat is twisted out with a fork - if it doesn't come out entirely, the shell needs to be cracked on the top to make the rest of the body budge. There's a little black squiggly big at the end of a complete snail carcass, its pancreas; it's up to the eater if that bit is consumed. Nikos’ three sons slurp away happily on snails dipped in olive oil; my urbanite offspring are content with dipping a piece of bread. We also collect snails from the village; once fattened up, I cook them the way my gourmet husband prefers - but that's another story.

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