Sardines (Part 1)

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Part One of an extended homage to Sardines, the most humble, overlooked and economical of fish. Sardines are great!   You can buy a bag load that will feed an army for a few quid, they’re delicious, and full of healthy goodness (allegedly) .  They don’t have the glamour or as many foody endorsements of other more flamboyant species  (I’m looking at you Sea Bass), and they’re small and a bit fiddly to prepare.  But, they’re one of the most sustainable fish you can buy, and they’re supremely versatile. 

Like most people of my age, my first encounter with sardines came via the little rectangular tins of packed fillets in rich tomato sauce.  A Saturday tea would often be these spread on toast and heated under the grill.  It’s still a default lazy tea, usually in the winter, especially if it’s raining.  Since can openers have become redundant, there isn’t the same level of jeopardy involved in getting them out of a jaggedy, razor edged tin.  As with so much of life these days, the frisson of 70s childhood danger has been erased.

I don’t think I encountered the ‘real’ thing until my 20s, on holiday in France, when we bought a bag load from the market and barbecued them. I remember that we were late to the market in Trets and took the last of fish seller’s stock and he was entranced by P’s fluency. And the fish were so good on the barbecue – stuffed with fennel fronds, drizzled with oil.  They hardly take any time to cook, and you can be thoroughly revolting, getting your fingers all oily and charred as you pick off all the meat.  They’re especially good with an ever so slightly warm potato salad, which I make with dill.  Every year I start the summer with this  barbeque, it’s almost a ritual, a remembrance of a holiday in Provence – an offering to Hegemone with high hopes for many outdoor meals and balmy evenings.

Below is my one of my favourite Sicilian ways of cooking them – turning them into a little snack that you can serve as a fancy antipasto;  one or two mouthfuls at most, of sweet, nutty, herby, citrusy oiliness, to get your tastebuds going for the main event. The recipe varies across Sicily, I’ll be sticking to the Palermo way – because that’s the one taught to me, but other versions are available.  In Catania, they’re presoaked in vinegar, cheese replaces the nuts and currants and then they’re cooked flat, having been dipped in egg and breadcrumbs before cooking. Although it might seem a bit of a faff to fillet and stuff all these sardines, I promise you that it’s worth it.  Put something captivating on the radio, and the time will fly by.  The stuffing freezes well, so anything you don’t use, you can store for next time.

Rachel Roddy tells the story behind their name in Two Kitchens – they’re meant to resemble little fig eating songbirds (I shan’t paraphrase further – I don’t want to spoil the original).  It’s another example of the romance of food in Sicily – just because the ingredients are ordinary and humble, there is no reason that the dish should not rise above its origins, with an accompanying flourish of poetry.

Sarde a beccafico

Ingredients (for 4)

16-20 cleaned and filleted sardines (depending on the size of the appetites of the 4)

1 clove garlic (crushed)

100g Breadcrumbs

Zest and Juice from one lemon

Juice of half an orange

2 anchovies (the ones in oil that come in little mini sardine tins)

25g Pine nuts

25g currants

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

4 generous tablespoons of olive oil

16-20 bay leaves

Salt and pepper

Clean and fillet your sardines.

They tend not to have been cleaned when you buy them (especially if they’re frozen).  So you have to grit your teeth and deal with the innards I’m afraid. I do the whole thing under a cold running tap, which makes it more clinical and less gorey. Scrape any scales off, snip off the fins (but not the tail).  Make a snip through the spine behind the gills, and then pull the head away, this should bring all the guts too, so it’s quicker and cleaner than cutting open the belly and scooping everything out. 

With the head gone, make an incision along the underside all the way to the tail, then flatten the sardine, by placing it opened out, on a chopping board and running your thumb along its spine.  Then you can flip it over and and slide a small sharp knife along all the ribs and lift them and the backbone out in one.  Don’t worry about any small bones left , these will soften in the cooking.  Trim the edges but leave the tail.  You should have your first fillet.  Once you’ve cleaned all the fish, cover them and put them in the fridge til you’re ready to stuff and cook them. (There are loads of video tutorials on YouTube on fish cleaning, if you feel in need of moral support).

For the stuffing, start by boiling the kettle and then soaking your raisins in hot water for ten minutes until they’ve plumped up, then drain and give them a light squeeze.  Meanwhile you can be lightly toasting your pine nuts in a dry frying pan.  Set them to one side.

Then add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the frying pan, add your anchovies and dissolve them in the warming oil, then add the breadcrumbs and fry until golden.  Half way through, add the crushed garlic. Once the crumbs are cooked, put them in a bowl with the zest of the lemon, the pine nuts and the drained currants.  Add your salt and pepper, and finally your chopped parsley.  Mix everything together, and leave to cool.

When you’re ready, take each fillet, put it skin side down and put a small spoonful of the stuffing in a line along the fish,  Then roll the fish up toward its tail and secure it with a cocktail stick.  You’ll get some stuffing spillage, but don’t worry about that. Slide a bay leaf onto the stick.  

Line them up in your backing tray, with the tails in the air, looking supposedly like little beaks (the becca in the beccafico)  sprinkle the lemon and orange juices over the lot and cook in your hot oven (around 180 degrees C) for ten minutes.  Then allow to cool before serving, which makes them an excellent thing for making in advance.

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Sardines (Part 2) will be coming soon…

Take an axe and a Squash….

I grow squashes, a lot of them.  Even though I know that I’ll end up giving most of them away.  Even though there isn’t room in the larder for the annual haul.  Even though I don’t really like them.  I grow them because they unfailingly instil a giddy school boy wonder in me.  How can nature be this bountiful? A plant that is joyously productive and whose fruit will sit for months on end without even blemishing.  I still have bags of steamed squash in the freezer from two years ago. Actually, make that three.  This plant is the botanical version of the Magic Porridge Pot

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When growing, they need space, food, water and warmth – all in vast amounts. If they get these, they are rampant, obscenely so. This is another reason I grow them, because my allotment is way too big for me to cope with, I grow things that’ll obscure the weeds from the allotment police. And I’ve never been adverse to a bit of obscenity.

But, my God, whilst they may be stupidly fecund and pleasing on the allotment, they’re boring in the kitchen.  I know people who rhapsodise about their ‘nutty flavours’ that intensify with storage, their versatility, their betacarotenes.  But essentially, they are just orange starch.  This is, I’m sure, why they have such a mythic status in East Coast American culture, all those early Puritans must have known they were in God’s promised land when they discovered a food so prolific, so sustaining and yet so, so dull.  Take pumpkin pie: packed with sugar, spice, evaporated milk: throw enough flavour at anything orange and it’s bound to stick.  Or any recipe for soup that involves a squash; first add generous amounts of garlic/ginger/smoked paprika.  Squashes exist to carry flavour, not to impart it.  They are the Typhoid Mary of the vegetable patch, without the blessed relief of typhoid. 

However, there is one thing that I adore about them; often you need an axe to break into them.  And there are precious few things that you’re allowed to legally attack with an axe

So here I am with my mind all set on the blandness of squashes.  And then the Sicilian comes along and does his trick of taking a few ordinary ingredients and giving the damn things a culinary ascension.  It’s a risotto, that you eat in autumn and winter (or year round if you’ve got three-year old frozen squash), it’s delicious and simple and comforting and easy.  There are all sorts of recipes out there that add sage, or bacon, or mushrooms, or saffron, or chestnuts. It doesn’t need any of them, just rice, squash, onion, some white wine, stock and cheese. And it’s bloody brilliant!

Risotto for four

Around half a kilo of winter squash or pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded (hang on to the seeds – I’ll explain later) and grated (or you can use the same amount of presteamed).

300-400g risotto rice (depending on how healthy your appetites are)

One large onion, finely chopped (if you want you can add garlic too, but it’s not essential)

50g butter

About a third of a small smoked scamorza

Parmesan – amount is up to you – but around 25-50 grams 

A glug of white wine (not vermouth, the flavour is too overwhelming)

At least a litre of cooking liquid (the Sicilian prefers water, so as not to overwhelm the delicate squashiness of the dish, but you can use a veg stock if you prefer).

Start by melting half the butter in a deep frying pan and then add the rice. Stirring it so that all the grains are coated.  You then want to cook this so that the rice becomes slightly toasted; not like burnt toast – more like sugar puffs.  This is where you get the nuttiness into the risotto, believe me, not from the squash.When you’ve reached your desired level of toastiness, put the rice into a bowl, for the time being.

Lightly fry the onion (you don’t want to brown it) in the remainder of the butter before adding your squash.  Heat it through and then add the wine.  There will be a whoosh of boozy steam which will make you feel like you’re a proper cook.

This bit will take some time: essentially, you want to break down the individual cells of the squash, so that it becomes a smooth paste.  If you’re using steamed squash it’s much easier.  Keeping cooking and stirring the onions and squash until you get to that paste consistency – add a little stock if necessary, to keep it wet.

Once you’re there, add your toasted rice back into the pan and the grated scamorza, along with more stock – about a third of it at first.  Bring it up to a simmer, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking on the bottom.  When most of this first lot of stock has been absorbed by the swelling rice, gradually add more in dribs and drabs until the rice is cooked how you like it (I prefer a bit of bite).  You’re aiming for something the consistency of warm rice pudding – so don’t add all the remaining stock at once, as you may not need it.

Then turn off the heat,  get a big wedge of parmesan, grate enough to indicate that it’s about to go out of fashion and stir into your risotto, leave it to melt for a couple of minutes.  Add loads of black pepper. Serve

There is magic at work in this dish.  It is smooth, unctuous, subtle and comforting. It will make any day better.

Oh, and remember those seeds….

Wash any pulp off them and then soak for a few hours in a brine as strong as the Dead Sea.

Drain, throw them into a baking tray and scatter with sea salt.  Dry roast them in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes.  These make a brilliant snack with a martini (more of which another time).  Treat them like a mini-pistachio.

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Pasta coi tenerumi

This is, in the words of the great Laurie Colwin, ‘a snap’. Which means it’s easy to make and tastes sublime. If you haven’t read her, read her.

Tenerumi are the leaves from a particular variety of summer squash, the Tomboncino, a big old rambling thing that produces comedic, elongated fruit,   Along with this Carry On veg, it also produces an awful lot of leaves, which taste great.   Just four ingredients and seasoning go into this dish; no stock, no herbs, but my Lord it’s good!

The only difficulty about this soup is getting your hands on the tenerumi.  So I grow my own plants, which makes it a proper seasonal dish, and all the better for that.  Treat them like a courgette on steroids, and you cannot go wrong.

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In Palermo you eat this in high summer, when you can buy carrier bags of the leaves in Ballero and it’s 40 degrees outside.  Because what you need when it’s 40 degrees outside is a steaming bowl of hot soup and pasta.  In Birmingham, it’s more likely to be September and more clement when you get to pick your leaves, but it’s still good, none the less. The Sicilian also adds a load of tabasco for added heat, but that’s purely optional.  

Ingredients

One carrier bag of squash shoots.

Garlic

6 large tomatoes (skinned and chopped)

100g of spaghetti

Take the shoots and strip off the leaves, then coarsely chop them (you don’t want any stems, but any baby squashes can go into the pot).  Set aside.

Take two or three cloves of garlic and add to a frying pan with some cold olive oil.  Heat this up until the garlic starts to brown and then add six large, skinned and chopped tomatoes, add some water to thin them down and then cook back down to a coarse paste (about 10 minutes).

Get two-three litres of water boiling, add plenty of salt and then add your tenerumi.  After a few minutes, add half the tomato paste and the spaghetti broken up into short (2-3cm) pieces.  As ever, the pasta shouldn’t be over cooked – the packet usually overestimates, so try knocking a minute of the timing.  Just before serving, add the remainder of the tomatoes and a glug of olive oil

Eat greedily (you will want seconds).

Fumetto di Pesce

fantastic stock for a mesmerising fish stew…..

Fish stews have a bad rap.  Overly romanticised and complicated – good old Elizabeth David goes as far as saying there’s no point even making a bouillabaisse outside of the mediterranean.  Well, maybe back in the 50s, that was the case, but I think that you can be a little less risk averse these days.  Boullaibaise is, of course, the show off in the room, but the principles of a good fish stew are the same (whatever you call it): get the stock right, give it time, choose the ingredients carefully, and get the best and freshest fish that you can.  In Italian, Fumetto is the stock that is the base of your fish stew. It also means a comic book, I’ve no idea why the word has two such disparate meanings – if you can enlighten me, you’d make me a happy man.

A good fish stew is improved by variety  If your choice of fish is limited to farmed seabass and salmon, prevacupacked in a warehouse-slash-distribution centre, then you’re going to be a tad stuck.  But if you’ve access to a decent fishmonger, or better still, a fish market – then you’re in luck. Ideally, you want a mix of white, oily and fatty fish – and as a rough rule of thumb, a different variety for each person you’re cooking for – so six people, six types of fish (but don’t get too hung up on this).  The Bullring, in my hometown of Birmingham, has fantastic fish stalls, so I can usually take my pick from red and grey mullet, cod, bass, Conger eel, monkfish, mackerel, and a whole range of fish from less familiar seas.  The rule is though – check that your fish has been caught sustainably.  Have a look at the Marine Conservation Society’s website if you’re not sure

So, to the Fumetto

First tip – if you eat shellfish, particularly prawns or langoustines, then save the shells and heads and freeze them for the next time you’re making a stock.

Whatever fish you decide on, ask for the heads when the fishmonger cleans them for you.  Equally, any trimmings should be retained. Gruesome I know, but it’s all about the flavour.

And now you’re ready to begin…

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Sweat some standard veg in a decent sized (anything over 5 litres) pot – chopped onions, celery, carrot in your oil of preference (if you’re going Mediterranean, then good extra virgin olive is the default). Don’t have the temperature too high (you don’t want the veg to colour), and keep a tight lid on things when you’re not stirring, the steam from the veg helps to soften and cook them.  After five or ten minutes of sweating, add your fish heads and prawn shells (if you have then).  Throw in a slug of booze – white wine or pastis are both good.  Ramp up the heat for a couple of minutes and add water – enough to fill the pot to within 5cm of the top and then leave to simmer as gently as possible, for as long as possible.  If the Sicilian is around, he’ll inevitably fish out the heads and strip them clean – they are, apparently, delicious.  I have yet to discover the verve to test this opinion!

I try to make this stock the day before, so as soon as you get back from the shops with the fish, get it on the go and stick your fish in the fridge.  Alternatively, you can have a premade stock in the freezer, and then replace it with a fresh batch made from this load of fish heads for the next time.

From fumetto to stew

When you’re ready to start the stew, get your Fumetto on the hob – a nice gentle boil and add a good pinch of saffron. Now you can add any vegetables you choose – potatoes, sliced fennel, anything that won’t break down into a mush, and leave to simmer until they’re almost cooked. There will be somewhere written down what vegetables must and must never be used,  but, as ever, go with what you like, not with what you’re told.

Meanwhile, prepare your fish.  Remove any scales that are still clinging on, clean and bone as required and then separate your fish according to their cooking time – oily and cartilaginous fish will take slightly longer to cook than white fish, such as cod.  Add the first fish, and then five minutes later add the white fish and any shellfish you’re including, as these will need to least cooking time.  At the last minute, throw in some chopped parsley and serve.  

I’m a big fan of serving this with a rouille, which is a French way.  A rouille is a garlic mayonnaise spiced with paprika,  the garlicky heat goes brilliantly with the delicate richness of the soup.  It’s easy if you’ve got a mixer, start with two egg yolks and then drizzle in olive oil on a high speed, add crushed garlic (it’s your call here as to how much) and half a teaspoon of paprika, salt and pepper.  You can dollop straight into the stew/soup or be more dainty and spread into over bread.  Again, the choice is yours.

AlicudiMatt

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It seems that, if you’ve calves of steel, the lungs to match and a can-do attitude reminiscent of a minor Waugh novel, then paradise can still be found. Your best bet in getting there is to ignore any  timetable that assures you there is a ferry from Palermo and to head for one of the smaller ports, for whom such trivialities as passengers are important.  The ferry from Palermo has a tendency to be cancelled a few hours before departure, which is unhelpful, because they wait until it is too late to make alternative arrangements.  It is even more unhelpful when you discover that it wasn’t cancelled, but ran as normal, only, presumably, unburdened of troublesome luggage-laden yahoos.  But this is Sicily, it kind of goes with the territory. Head instead for Millazo, or Messina.  Less glamorous, yes, but at least you stand a chance of getting to paradise.

And then you arrive.  An unprepossessing dock, part building site, part dock.  Sicily again – they’re enlarging the dock, however they’re at an impasse – to finish the work, more materials are needed, particular materials that need a bigger boat to deliver them.  But the boat cannot come because the dock is too small.   But it will be sorted, somehow, one day.

Now, get ready for the calves of steel.  Your house will be an idyll, with astonishing views from your terrace across to mainland Sicily, with Etna in the distance; turn your head just a few degrees, and the other Aeolian islands are strung out before you – Filicudi, Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, and Stromboli (if you squint), smouldering in the distance. It is a landscape of mythology.  This house will also be several hundred vertiginous steps up the side of the extinct volcano.  Yes, a donkey will take your luggage (ignore the time they give you though, remember, you’re in Sicily now), but you do have to do the climb, too. There is a shop in the harbour run by Carlo, a rare blue-eyed Italian in this part of the world.  He’s not going to beat Aldi or Lidl in the value for money stakes, but let’s face it, any man that stocks Cynar on an island of fifty inhabitants gets my vote.  There is a reason that he stocks water by the crate and prominently sells wine by the box.  Buy your groceries in bulk and let the donkey do the heavy work – believe me, once you’re in for the evening, set for a G&T – you will not be ‘nipping out to the shops’ if you’ve forgotten anything.  Even if it’s the T.

But once you’re ‘home’ get ready to unpack that can-do spirit.  With a two ring hob hidden away in an old bread oven, the game is on to turn the courgette that you were given by Simone on the way up into dinner, with some pasta perhaps, some parmesan, garlic and oil (olive of course).  You’ve never met Simone before, but it seems that courgette growers are the same the world over – always desperate to off load their courgettes onto total strangers.

Begin by frying a crushed, whole garlic clove.  Put it into the pan with cold oil and bring them up to heat.  Once it browns, take the clove out and put it aside.  Now fry your sliced courgette until both sides are the colour of the forearms of the guy who owns the donkey that brought your luggage up.  This will take a lot longer than you expect.  But that’s fine.  An orange full moon will be rising into the sky behind Etna, your amour will point out all the stars that form Scorpio, and you will have resorted to G&. Because you didn’t believe the bit about not wanting to nip to the shop for some more T.  As the household gecko emerges to snack on the moths drawn to the light above the dinner table on the terrace, it will all start to feel a bit Gerald Durrell, childhood dreams can come true.

Cook the pasta – the usual way, for less time than it says on the packet and with enough salt in the water to make your blood pressure rocket to the heights of Scorpio (it’s ok, all those steps have already made you fitter than when you arrived).  Drain, keep some of the cooking water back and throw the pasta and two or three of the courgette slices (mashed up) into the frying pan you cooked the courgette in.  Toss, to get the oil all the way through, add parmesan and dress with the courgette slices.  Eat, under aforementioned full moon, and be glad that you’ve moved on from the G& to the wine box you wisely invested in.

Tomorrow, you can bathe in the bluest waters you’ve seen, or climb to the summit of the extinct volcano, gathering wild capers and fennel along the way (should you be feeling particularly Saturday Guardian) and see more butterflies in two hours than you’ve seen in a decade in the UK, fat emerald lizards, furtive jet-black snakes that vanish as soon as you see them, moths like hummingbirds and perhaps a praying mantis skulking amongst the artemisia.  My 21st century phone told me that it was 118 storeys, my calves of less -than-steel, had a hissy fit, but my inner Famous 5, 12 years old alter ego was having the time of his life. 

For dinner,  you can eat seafood by the sea (raw prawns full of electric blue eggs, octopus, swordfish).  Or you can let the amour rustle something up with aubergines and pasta in the converted bread oven cum kitchen  Or pop down the hill to visit Simone (on Alicudi, people open up their homes as restaurants, and not in a pop-up kind of a way).  By now you’re waiting for the catch – surely there’s a catch?

And of course, there it is, niggling away somewhere, that upon your return, you’ll be hauled over the coals for something at work, the dogs will expect you to segue seamlessly back into their usual early morning walking routine, and the hedge you didn’t cut before you left will have grown rampantly.

So, have a return plan, and maybe next time, you’ll come back for longer – you’ll get up earlier so that you can buy fresh fish from the dock, be a bit fitter, so that you can climb the volcano without worrying that you might be the prime age for a heart attack, stock up on aperol, campari and cynar, as rewards for the climb, persuade a few more friends to join you, and for two or three weeks next year, you’ll relive the dream.

Watermelon not-jelly for hot summer days

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Gelo di melone

I still get the shivers thinking about the food of my 70s British childhood.  Knowing now that the entire country (apart from Margot and Gerry Leadbetter) was skint,  doesn’t take the edge off some of the horrors that found their way out of our suburban kitchen and onto the dining room table.  None of this was helped either by my mother’s self-confessed inability to cook.  So there was lots of grilled liver, boiled mince and beef cuts that may as well have been cow hide.  Puddings at least offered some form of respite, mum could throw together a decent crumble or rice pudding, and there was always the rare decadence of a butterscotch angel delight.  Some days though, the fates would conspire against me, and pudding would be a milk jelly a lesson in how ruin a perfectly good thing

Milk jelly:

Ingredients:

Jelly (any flavour), Milk (a pint)

Dissolve the jelly in some hot water.  Add milk.  Leave to set. Regret

So why start reminiscing about rogue puddings, when I’m supposed to be talking about a melon jelly?

Well, it’s because, when first described to me, I had a panic attack flash back to my childhood and visions of that bowl of cloudy blandness.  A wonderful jelly ruined by good intentions.

Gelo di melone is a set jelly made from watermelon. Its similarity to milk jelly ends there. For one, it’s not a jelly. There is no gelatine, the effect is obtained by cornflour.  It’s a cloudy blush red,  with added chocolate and pistachios.  It is delicate, grown-up, reserved for the hottest of hot days in July and August.   You can buy it in little plastic cups from Pasticceria Cappello on Via Colonna Rotta in Palermo, or you can make it yourself, which is probably easier for non-Palermitans.

Ingredients

One small watermelon (you’re aiming for around a litre of juice)

100g caster sugar

Cinnamon stick

75-100g cornflour

Jasmine flowers

Chopped pistachios

Chopped dark chocolate

Take your water melon, peel and blitz it. Don’t worry about the seeds, you sieve the pulp to get the juice.

Now add the sugar

If you’re feeling very romantic, you can make a chain of Jasmine flowers by threading them onto cotton and add them (or use a small hint of jasmine essence, if you’re feeling less prosaic).

Now add the cornflour, premixed into a paste with a little of the juice.  

Put the pan on the hob on a medium heat and start to cook – stirring, stirring, stirring.

Don’t stop stirring and don’t let anything stick to the bottom of the pan.

Alchemy happens – suddenly, in a few short seconds, the whole thing will condense into a thick, opaque,  sputtering, camp essence of pinkness.  

Cook for a little longer. Don’t stop stirring.

Decant into your chosen serving dishes (individual little glasses work well) and leave to cool.  

It’ll set slowly into a firm wobbly not-jelly.

Just before you serve it sprinkle chopped dark chocolate (it’s supposed to resemble the seeds that you sieved out earlier) and green pistachio nibs (because it’s Sicilian, and pistachios are ubiquitous).  No one you give this to is likely to have ever tasted anything like it in their lives, they will thank you profusely.

Snails as bar snacks

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The first time I learnt how to cook snails, it was purely theoretical. I was in my early 20s, in Provence, in June. Everywhere you looked in the sun dried landscape, the bleached shells of snails clung to stems of desiccated weeds, looking totally incongruous to a northern European eye.  I was used to snails which roamed with gay abandon for most of the year, unconcerned by our weak Summer sun, sliming at will, rain or shine, plundering the best efforts of every suburban gardener.  But here, in this small village outside Aix, these snails seem to have been caught unawares by spring –  forced to hunker down in situ and wait for far off autumn.  This lack of foresight, apparently, made them easy pickings – literally.  So, first, catch your snail, that, let’s face it, is the easy part.

Now comes the prep.  The problem with foraged food, is that you’ve no idea where it’s been, or what it’s been eating.  It would be so much easier if snails only snacked on choice herbs – delicate thymes and fennel perhaps? But they’re not so obliging, so they need a purge.  You take your gathered snails and dump them into the sink.  Fill the sink with water, and leave overnight.  This trick has two outcomes.  When you come back to the kitchen in the morning – the first task is to look in the sink, and remove any dead snails.  A bit like shellfish, if they don’t make it through the ‘are they alive’ test, then you don’t want to be eating them.

Next, gather all the living snails.  Their dunking will have cleansed them of any undesirable leftovers, and they’ll have proved their vigour by helpfully escaping all over the kitchen – up the walls, on the ceiling – you name it.  Now, I can’t help feeling that this method is fundamentally flawed.  But the French matriarch who passed on her snail-based wisdom was adamant that this process was the only way.  So who was I to argue?

And then onto the escargot – cooked in butter and garlic – your snails are transformed into the infamous delicacy of a thousand caricatures.  And here’s the thing. They’re not much of a delicacy, more an oversized chunk of garlicky protein.  I’ve had them from a jar; in a fancy restaurant in Lilles; freshly prepared near Poitiers, and I just don’t get escargot.  They’re not unpleasant, but then neither are they a thing of wonder unleashing some sort of Proustian rapture

But then I discovered snails again, in Sicily.  Here they are very much a humble food, served in summer – a bar snack to be eaten with cold beer.  Or you can buy nets of them at the market, to take home and prepare yourself.

These southern, Mediterranean snails are an entirely different kettle of fish.  Much like a lot of Sicilians, these snails are tiny, the size of winkles, rather than the great lumpen molluscs associated with escargot.  But they have that same sun-bleached look of those long ago Provencal ones.

Prepping has its similarities too, but with a far more practical modus operandi.  Big pot, filled with water and with a rim of salt just above the surface.  Dunk the snails, which, being sensible creatures will attempt to climb out of the water, to avoid death by drowning.  However, when they encounter the salt, they are forced to retreat to a watery demise.  And the benefit of this method is that they die with their heads and necks extended, making eating much easier.

And the preparation is easy too: white wine, whole garlic cloves, parsley and then steam them in this liquor for a few minutes.  Or you can go to one of those street vendors in a rough part of Palermo where they cook up a vat of the things around arpertivo.  And then buy beer from the bar opposite and eat messily and noisily – sucking the little gems out of the shell, with their juices.  They are sweet and moist and slip down a treat.  You’ll be surrounded by mildly terrifying old men, possessing teeth in various states of decay.  The conversation will routinely be drowned out by vespas whizzing past.  And as is the norm in Sicily, most of the talk will be of the place you had the best snails, where you’re going to get the next snails, and what to have for dinner tonight, tomorrow and next week.