The things people will eat (1)

By Frederic Friedel

For a couple of years, during my university time, I stayed in a student hostel. One day I was entertaining some guests in my room when there was a knock and a spectacular red-haired girl burst in. It was Rosemarie from southern France. She had just returned from a holiday home and was carrying a large cardboard box. After quickly kissing everyone present she handed it over to me with the words “Please keep this until I find the key to my room.” And disappeared.

It was a dramatic interlude. We return to conversation — except there were noises coming from the box. After a while I could not hold back and investigated. It was filled with giant snails, maybe fifty or a hundred, feeding on large twigs of marjoram. They were clearly ravenous: some were desperately trying to eat the cardboard from the box.

This is what the escargot (edible snail, Weinbergschnecke in German, Helix pomatia in biology) looks like. The ones in the box were from South France and quite large — at least three inches long.

After a while Rosemarie returned and retrieved her box. She also invited us all to a dinner she would be preparing, a couple of days later. At least two of my guests turned pale when they realized that it would consist of escargot, the snails in the box. One was in fact a vegan who would not touch eggs or cheese.

The next two days Rosemarie worked hard on the meal, following pages of instructions penned by her mother. There was a lot of garlic involved, and fresh herbs, walnuts, aromatic spices. I watched some of it with fascination and learned a lot about the southern French cuisine in the process.

On the day of the escargot feast, of the dozen or so friends Rosemarie had invited, only two turned up: her boyfriend, who also lived in the hostel, and myself. The former ate one snail, gingerly, and lots of the accompanying salad. And Fred? He feasted on this delicious meal. It was an extraordinary culinary experience that, due to the absence of any further guests, was continued for two more days.

I learned a lot from Rosemarie, who lived on the same floor of the student hostel. We shared a kitchen, and one day when I had bought fresh mussels she said: “They look really good — can I try them?” Sure, I said, I will prepare them later today. But she took one, pried it open with a knife and slurped the contents. “Delicious!” I was a bit shocked: the mussel was alive. I boil them in wine before eating. “That spoils them,” Rosemarie said, “Do you boil oysters as well?” Since that time I have appalled a fair number of people on beaches by eating mussels raw — and enjoyed them immensely.

The tradition continued: once we were at a Baltic Sea beach and our young son Tommy dug a little pool in the sand, with a channel to the water so it could flow in. Soon the puddle was full of fish, about an inch and a half long, all trying to swim inland. There were millions along the seafront, and seagulls and other birds were eating them like popcorn. So I tried one. It was great. I tried a couple more, and Tommy looked up: “Are you eating them?” Sure, if the birds could do it, so could I. Later I tried the same at an inland lake, where small fish were easy to catch. They were terrible. Apparently the salt is needed to make fresh, live fish palatable.

From my childhood in the jungles I have learned to eat all kinds of things, often raw. When we were out in the deepest parts, accompanied by the indigenous Katkaris, my father would shoot some animal for food. Usually it was a deer or a wild boar. The Katkaris would rejoice, clean and skin the animal, and carry it back to their camp. There they would spend the next two days gouging themselves. The meat would not keep — no refrigeration in the jungle — and the tribals were strangely inept hunters. That is why they treasured the visits of the Great White Man with the Gun. It meant unlimited proteins for a few days. During that time they would walk around with swollen bellies, very much like lions after a kill. Eat as much as you possibly can, nobody knows when the next opportunity will come.

Anyway, during these jungle excursions I learned to eat things raw. When the boar or deer was being cleaned by the Katkaris my father would cut a few slices of meat — prime filet, I will assume — and share them with me. My mother, of Portuguese-Indian extraction, was horrified when she learned of this, but the German naturalist father had no problems: why wait until the evening and the fire at the Katkari camp? He even shot fish in the lakes (really, with his Enfield rifle) and the strips of fresh uncooked fillets are a culinary memory I will never forget. Maybe that is why I love sushi?!

How to eat shrimp

A long time ago I was at a conference in Hong Kong, and we were invited to a grand dinner by our Chinese host. It was in an exclusive restaurant where the chef cooks the meal at your table. One of the dishes consisted of large shrimp, grilled on a hot metal plate. While the chef was tossing them around they smelled fantastic. In the end he slit open the sizzling shrimp and served us the flesh, which was tiny. Most of the creature, the head and legs, was pushed to the side.

The little flesh morsel was good, but I was a bit disappointed and asked our Chinese host: “The rest goes to waste?” “Well, no,” he replied. “Normally, we eat the whole thing. Want to see?” Of course I did. He took one of the heads and put it, legs and all, into his mouth. He chewed on it for a minute or two, and then removed a little ball of shrimp shell from his mouth. And grinned all the time. At this stage an American businessman, who was part of the group, remembered he had a lot of preparation to do for the next day and retired to his room. The rest of the group were just horrified.

Naturally I had to try it myself: and it was absolutely amazing. All the juices and taste of the seafood delicacy was in the head, the little piece of flesh was nothing compared to it. I processed all the heads, as did our Chinese host, who became a good friend. We even took heads from our neighbors.

In Germany we all know and treasure the season when fishing boats pull shrimp from the North and the Baltic Sea in great profusion. The catch is put into giant pots and boiled on the boats, for three minutes, in sea water.

When the fishing boats land tourists are waiting to buy the shrimps in little bags, steaming hot. And you sit at a bench, laboriously peeling each of them and eating the flesh. I do it differently: I pull off the long feelers — come on, nobody can eat those — and pop the whole shrimp into my mouth. The shell is soft and crunchy, the head contains most of the tasty part. I thank my Chinese friend in Hong Kong for teaching me this.

A final note: in Germany people generally want their shrimp peeled. But that is not easy, it is labor intensive. So (and you are not going to believe this): the bulk of the catch described above, the boiled shrimp, is loaded onto refrigeration trucks, dozens of them, every day during the shrimp season. The newspaper Bild reported details:

Each truck carries 20 tons of boiled shrimp, cooled to minus one degree Centigrade. The trucks cross Europe, traveling 3000 km through Germany. Belgium, France and Spain. In Algeciras they are transferred by ferry to Marocco, where 1600 women are waiting to peel them. These women process around 250 tons per week, six to eight kg per worker per day (the best can do eleven kg). And for this they earn around €200 per month. The peeled shrimp are loaded back on the trucks and embark on their 3000 km return trip to northern Germany.

The fishermen who caught and boiled the shrimp get just under two Euros per kilogram, the final peeled product, when it gets back from its 6000 km trip to and from Morocco, sells for around €30 per kilogram. I venture to suggest that I am getting more pleasure from eating my shrimp at the seaside, immediately after the catch, shells, legs and all.

Also read: Whales — love ’em or eat ’em