Snails in Besançon

In France many years ago, I dined one evening in monastic cellars where I ate snails bathed in a sauce of butter, garlic, and parsley. That’s all they tasted of since there’s not much to a mollusc, but my memory of them is also tainted by tragedy.

Snails are not high on my list of gastronomic delights, but an article by Phil Daoust in The Guardian (29 June 2011) reminded me of my meal, why I was there, and a sad discovery. In “Snails definitely aren’t fast food”, Daoust describes the best way to catch, prepare, and cook snails. Well, catching them is not exactly difficult, except knowing what kind of snail to look for and eschewing (a word that seems peculiarly apt to a discussion of snails) places where they might have consumed toxins:

“Having consulted dozens of authorities on snail farming, most of whom disagree about almost everything, I do know I will have to clean them, inside and out. What no one stresses enough is that snails crap incessantly. So they need to be sluiced down daily in the run-up to cooking them (I end up using a plastic scouring pad on the shells). More importantly, they have to be purged of anything unhealthy they may have eaten, even though you should only collect them from spots that are free from poisonous plants, slug pellets, toxic waste etc. You therefore need to keep them in an airy box for a week or two, feeding them on veg that’s clean and fresh. I opt for a large terracotta flowerpot, topped with wire mesh. There’s something heart-rending about the way they strain against the bars.”

I recommend the article for its wanton good humour and its insight into the culinary delights of edible French gastropods. My one and only experiment with escargots took place in the city of Besançon in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. I had gained a place in a conducting competition that had started in 1951 as part of Besançon’s International Music Festival. Having got through to round two, I was duly eliminated after a sluggish performance of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye. I don’t think the snails were to blame.

Left with one or two days on my hands, I set out to explore the historic city. It’s an impressive setting with the river Doubs almost encircling the old town, surveyed by the imposing Citadel of Besançon, one of the military architect Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban’s masterpieces. It stands on one of the seven hills that protect Besançon, a site whose strategic importance Julius Caesar recognized as early as 58 BCE. Today, the citadel houses the Museum of the French Resistance and Deportation, recounting local acts of bravery against the occupying German Army.

During World War II the Germans captured the Citadel. Between 28 April 1941 and 18 August 1944, German firing squads executed some 100 resistance fighters. The most painful episode occurred on Sunday 26 September 1943, when 16 Resistance fighters died, including 17-year-old Henri Fertet. Fertet took part in three attacks that caused the deaths of two German military personnel. Arrested at his parents’ house, and following 87 days of imprisonment and torture, he was blindfolded and led to one of the four execution stakes still standing today as a reminder of the barbarism of war. His poignant last letter to his parents is in the museum’s collection:

“Ma lettre va vous causer une grande peine, mais je vous ai vu si pleins de courage que, je n’en doute pas, vous voudrez bien encore le garder, ne serait-ce que par amour pour moi… Vous ne pouvez douter de ce que je vous aime aujourd’hui, car avant, je vous aimais par routine plutôt mais, maintenant, je comprends tout ce que vous avez fait pour moi. Je crois être arrivé à l’amour filial véritable, au vrai amour filial… Les soldats viennent me chercher. Je hâte le pas. Mon écriture est peut-être tremblée, mais c’est parce que j’ai un petit crayon. Je n’ai pas peur de la mort, j’ai la conscience tellement tranquille.”

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