One time when staying at Thierry’s house in the foothills of the Pyrenees, he decided to further my culinary education after hearing that I had never experienced steak tartar – and an experience is exactly what it turned out to be!
I’m not a great meat-eater although by no means vegetarian, but I’m very wary of meat dishes served in France as pretty much everything goes in. During one hangar meal on an early visit to the gyro club, one of our small group of English friends remarked on a particularly chewy morsel that he was having difficulty with. Further delving into his generous helping of cassoulet, he was shocked to fish out a pig’s ear! Personally, it’s the pinkly oozing cuts of meat bleeding into the gravy that turn my stomach, as French companions eagerly set to with knife and fork. Meat is invariably served rare, which to English sensibilities is practically raw. Inversely, a request for bien cuit (well-done in carnivorous terms) is regarded with horror by the French as burnt! So when Thierry decided that I was to be introduced to this gastronomic wonder of steak tartar, I was somewhat apprehensive, envisaging a bloody slice of some unfortunate creature with all the fat and gristly bits still attached and flash-fried in a pan for the briefest of brownings. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The kitchen was a hive of activity later that afternoon with great preparations afoot, much to my dismay. They were taking so much trouble to do something nice for me, how could I get through this without causing offence? The table was set beautifully in front of the wide-open hearth where a pile of logs burned merrily in the grate. It was witching hour. The four of us took our places in the warm glow of the firelight – three French diners relaxed over aperitifs in genial anticipation of a good meal – and one cowardly English gripping a fruit juice in a state of mild panic!
Well the melon for starters was delicious and I would have quite happily called it quits right there. Imagination had been working overtime but I had no idea of what was coming, so when Thierry proudly arrived with plates bearing mounds of raw mince and onion, each crowned with the golden yolk of a raw egg, I sensed a practical joke in the offing. He had to be kidding, didn’t he? My companions set about their mounds with a flurry of seasoning and sauces, which they proceeded to mash into a pink and sticky mess. Whaaat??? Seeing my confusion, Thierry explained that the blend of onions, sauces and seasoning would ‘cook’ the meat and egg after a few minutes of mixing. Okaaaay… I applied salt and pepper to my unappetising mound as instructed, passing on the fiery selection of chillies and pimentos, and mashed everything into a pink and sticky mess of my own. It didn’t look any better. After a few minutes pause, presumably to allow the ‘cooking’ process to do its thing (wouldn’t want to over cook it now, heaven forbid!), my friends tucked in appreciatively.
I didn’t want to be rude after all the work that’d been done on my behalf, but I couldn’t help but think of salmonella and other such unsavoury microbes associated with raw meat and eggs – or maybe that’s what the chillies were for – to nuke the bugs into submission. I sent my mind out for a stroll around the block to keep it occupied, and scooped a blob of pink goo onto my fork. Admittedly, it wasn’t as totally repulsive as expected in a raw mince kind of vibe, but ‘delicious’ was not a word that was immediately apparent. I failed to achieve the same sense of enjoyment as my fellow diners, who were obviously in gastronomical heaven and clearing their plates with enthusiasm. I managed to keep a few mouthfuls down before they took pity on the callow anglais and graciously polished off the remains between them, while Thierry very kindly conjured up a plate of fried eggs for me instead. France 1, England 0.
Snails. Why would anyone willingly eat snails? How deep would the hunger pangs have to run before throwing a snail in the pot? Strangely, slugs are not revered in the same way as far as I’m aware. Slugs presumably return home after a hard day in the vegetable patch, whereas snails park up wherever the fancy takes them – the caravan clubbers of the mollusc world. In terms of food, snails are filed under the same pointless category as oysters. And are those unfortunate creatures still alive when they get swallowed? Doesn’t bear thinking about.
‘You have never had snails!’ came the cry of disbelief. Oddly it was Thierry again. ‘Cover them in garlic butter, mmm delicious’ he enthused. Right, so clearly the garlic butter provides all the flavour to detract from chewing on a slimy garden mollusc with the consistency of a rubber tyre. Fine, so we can dispense with the snail and I’ll just take the garlic butter, please. ‘But you must try them, they are a delicacy!’ Oh god.
My French friends are the best in the world. Thierry disappeared that afternoon on a special mission to provide a banquet of l’escargots for my delectation. I was mortified. If the steak tartar had made me nervous, the thought of chewing on a snail filled me with horror. How could I swallow it without throwing up! Now I have no problem at all with snails in ordinary every day life: I pluck them from harms way lest an inattentive boot or tyre shatter their leisurely progress, and cringe with genuine remorse at the sound of an unseen shell cracking beneath my foot. I’m fine with snails – just don’t want them on my plate is all.
Thierry was gone for over an hour, leaving me to stew queasily over the impending rubbery feast. I really wasn’t happy, fixated by the thought of their eyes, those oozing stalks extending like periscopes from the slimy body – ew! But salvation was at hand. My good-hearted friend returned empty handed, lamenting the lack of suitably fresh molluscs with which to expand my gastronomical education, and although frozen specimens were readily available (the mind boggles) they just didn’t cut the mustard in comparison. I hid my disappointment with some difficulty. What a relief, that really wouldn’t have ended well!
I’m not sure Thierry was being completely honest though – I reckon he just couldn’t catch them…