Friday, on the way back from Lavelanet market, we noticed a sign. Painted in white on the black plastic wrapping a bale of hay, the sign advertised a Saturday night cargolade in Lagarde.
I've wanted to be at a real cargolade from the first time I heard about it. The nearest I came to it was a dish served in a restaurant in Perpignan several years ago.
We had the date right and assumed things would get underway around seven. But it was eight before we found where it was. Not in the village square where we parked the car. Not in the chateau grounds, several minutes away, but down a track through the woods in a large barn with bales of straw stacked at one side.
The butcher's truck was there selling steaks, chops and sausages as well as tinned pâté cut in quarters and various little cakes and tartes.
Cargolade is snails cooked over charcoal. A wheelbarrow full of escargots in net bags stood near the grill. Before long, the grillmasters (including Christian, the man in the middle in the photo, who cooks every Friday night at the marché nocturne in Léran) had tipped the snails onto large rectangular grills and were cooking them directly over the coals. If you're squeamish, stop right here.
The snails waved their horned heads around and juices bubbled out but there was no escape. When we went back and lined up about 15 minutes later, they were all deceased, or at least very still. Thoughts of Cathar martyrs came to mind. At this point, Christian took a lardoir--imagine a funnel with a long handle--packed a piece of very fatty pork skin into it and held it over the flames until the fat started to run. He dripped this over the snails while his colleague sprinkled them liberally with salt.
Nutritionists had better not read any further either. The rest of our meal comprised frites, beers, and a baguette.
Cooking escargots in bulk isn't easy. Then again, ask me if I'd rather eat an overdone snail than a semi-raw one and no prizes for guessing the answer. The trouble is that overcooked snails stick. Peter compared it to pulling weeds in the garden. In both cases, you have to go very gently or they snap in half. Occasionally, we experienced a small triumph when one of us coerced a complete snail out of its shell. A whole curl of snail, I should add, isn't remotely like the small dark rubbery things that come out of tins.
Great minds... I said: next time, we should bring nut crackers. Peter decided to use his teeth instead. Snail shells are thin so there's no danger to dental work, and it definitely let us get every last little morsel out. The taste of wild snails is dark and gamy, a bit fungal, and--at a cargolade--charcoal-y. The aioli that came with them was store-bought mayonnaise stiff with garlic chips. Meanwhile, the woman beside ate a huge steak. Raw.