It was unsurprisingly hot. The August sun of the Catalan countryside had burnished the small mountain village into a dusty torpor.
“What shall we do for lunch?” she said. For the moment I felt too hot to even think about food.
“What have we got?”
“Some salade Nicoise from last night – and that pâté we haven’t even started yet.”
“Yum! Salade Nicoise” said Nicky whose adventurousness about French food seemed to be limited to her eponymous salad.
“Seems good,” I said, briefly guilty that I was leaving all the food decisions to Jill.
A dog barked in the square; a sort of statutory minimum bark, all that it was going to be bothered with in this heat. Not so much a bark, more a large exhalation of dog breath. Fortunately there was no-one nearby to catch the odour of this costive hound. The stimulus for this halitotic wheeze had been the sight of a middle-aged French lady clipping smartly down the road from the car park by the school. We knew Hélène a bit from the fractured conversations beside the meat van. She turned up the stone steps to our front door.
“Excusez-moi. M Espinet invites you to a cargolade barbecue in forty-five minutes. Bring knife, fork, spoon and a glass.” all this in penetrable French.
We displayed surprise, delight and thanked her with typical English profusion. She left. Nicky looked bemused.
“What’s a cargolade?” she asked suspiciously.
“I can’t eat snails!” she wailed. “Ugh! Disgusting.” Mary was quiet, embarrassed at her friend’s outburst.
“Don’t worry, Nicks” said Jill “I’m sure there’ll be other food. I’ll take the pâté with us.” Nicky did not look greatly reassured.
Three quarters of an hour later we made our way up the road. The car park at the top of the village was surrounded by tall trees, oaks, sweet chestnuts, cherries. It made for a beautiful, cool, mind-settling shade. In the far corner was a pile of grey and red hot ash, the remnants of a blazing bonfire that had been lit on the tarmac two hours previously. A line of trestle tables stretched the measure of the car park. Plastic chairs were piled up at one end.
At the tables sat four or five women of the village, cutting up vegetables for large bowls of salad. Jill, ever ready to play the French housewife, went over to join them bearing her offering of pâté. Soon she was chopping away, with many interruptions when her French speaking demanded large arm movements and expressive mimes. Mary and Nicky joined her. The conversation, briefly disconnected by their arrival, was resumed with renewed vigour. Jill’s laugh melded with the jocularity of her fellow choppers and mixers.
I wandered over to the barbecue area and was hailed by M Espinet, our friend. He was armed with a long-handled, three foot long ladle. A small knob of lard was placed in the small cup at the business end. His brother-in-law, a retired fire chief, was equipped with an industrial size blowtorch which he was using to heat the cup and melt the lard. Then, with considerable precision, a small amount of the liquid fat was poured into each of hundreds of snails, laid out on a huge, round wire-mesh grill.
“It is to kill them first” explained the ex-fireman, unnecessarily, “then we barbecue them.” I made sure that Nicky did not come across to observe this manoeuvre.
In a short while things were ready. We sat at the trestle tables and ate pâté and salad, washed down with wine from undifferentiated containers that was, nevertheless, delicious. This was followed by the snails. In front of me I had an empty plate with a blob of garlic sauce in the corner. M Espinet spooned half a dozen of the sacrificed molluscs on to the plate and we were off.
Nicky, to her eternal credit, tried one snail but then spat it out. Mary managed three. Jill, not willing to let the English side down, consumed fourteen. I counted up the empty shells when we had finished. I had eaten forty-nine.
There was much hilarity about this. “Ah, Monsieur André” said one of the women, a large fishwife from Marseilles, “in France we have a saying ’In August you either have snails or you have women.’”.
“Oh dear!” joked Jill “does this mean they’re not an aphrodisiac” and she gave a passable imitation of the functional impediment that this mollusc ingestion might cause.
“You’ll see” they laughed. The meal continued with large quantities of cheese and bread, lubricated in the afternoon heat by more and more wine. Then there were trays of patisseries and hugely strong black coffee.
We staggered home. The dog in the square opened one eye and farted.
Later on I envied that dog. Relief came noisily at three in the morning. I had to leave Madame and drive up into the forest above the village. Then I could really let rip.