Monday, 12 May 2008

Nothing sluggish about this South African project

As hard as it is to follow Juno’s post about her horrific experience on Saturday night, I thought I’d share this good-news story with readers of salmagundi. Because as much as life in South Africa seems pretty grim at the moment, there are people out there still fighting the good fight.

There are several communities on our west coast that are in severely dire straits: a report commissioned on the area a few years ago found that many small towns there have ‘almost a complete lack of economic opportunity (particularly for women), a dependency on government grants, a lack of accessible basic services (healthcare, transportation, food security, education) and a culture of debt amassed to cover basic living expenses’.

A small group of people have found a solution to these ills, and it’s surprising: snails. I was offered a commission to do a story about the project, and, given my own experience with eating snails (see ‘Dagga Flashbacks’, below), I jumped at it. And what an interesting wealth of information I unearthed about these slimy little critters.

The west coast Poor People’s Movement Snail Project sees otherwise unemployed workers (mainly women) picking snails in the local vineyards for six months of the year – which has the fabulous run-off effect of encouraging farmers to use fewer dangerous pesticides. These snails are then purged for a few weeks (a very necessary step – don’t be tempted to pluck a few snails from your garden spinach patch and just pop them in a pot), then chilled to the point where they seal themselves and go into hibernation, after which they’re sold to a local snail exporter. This exporter ships the snails, very much alive and very sound asleep, to Europe for use as food.

Now, isn’t that fabulous? I love the notion of some fat French gastronome tucking into his amuse bouche of snails-on-a-stick and having not a clue that they’ve come not from a nearby snail farm, but all the way from the Africa – and that they’ve contributed in a very real way to the financial upliftment of an otherwise savagely impoverished community.

During the course of my research I discovered that snails aren’t only delicious to eat (and that they’re enjoyed in cuisines all over the world, not only in France), but they’ve also long been used in medicine. Pliny, who lived around the time of the birth of Christ, prescribed for patients with stomach pains snails that had been ‘boiled and grilled over a coal fire', and added (very sensibly) that they 'should be eaten with wine’. He also mentioned, flatteringly and mysteriously, that ‘snails from Africa are the best, but they must be prepared in an uneven number’.

I also came across a useful recipe for ‘snail water’, published in 1738, good for ‘skin redness’ and ‘the spasms of spitting blood accompanying tuberculosis’. Snails are crushed in a mortar, then put over a simmering pot and mixed with ‘the fresh milk of a female donkey’ (I’m assuming that milk from a male donkey doesn’t work as well). This potent potion is allowed to sit in the sun for 12 hours before being distilled, then it’s ready for use.

Jokes aside, helicidine, a biological extract prepared from snails, has been used with good results in cough medicines in France for the past forty years, and snail mucus, which has antibacterial properties, is currently being marketed as a salve for various skin disorders including roseacea, and to heal scars and keep skin smooth and supple.

I was thrilled and a little ashamed to learn that the long top two feelers on a snail contain light-sensitive organs – so the huge fun I used to have as a child, touching those tentacles and watching them recoil, was tantamount to poking the snail in the eyes with a sharp stick. (The smaller bottom ones feel, taste and smell.)

And perhaps best of all, I discovered that the common brown garden snail – the very snail that is now being exported to Europe from our shores – was probably brought to South Africa by the French Huguenots in their vinestock in the late 1600s. So all we’re doing, really, is sending them home again. (Sure, it’s to be eaten, but you can’t win ’em all.)

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meggie said...

A very interesting post. My daughter suffers from Roseacea, but cant see her using the snail treatment somehow.

tonypark said...

That's lovely.

I had a laugh in France a few years ago when I came across a stall at a trendy country food fair selling "Australian Wild Boar" as a delicacy.

In Australia we call these nasty worm-ridden things "feral pigs" or "razor backs". I'd no sooner eat one than I would a rabig dog.

Just goes to show... one man's fish...

Juno said...

Such a lovely feel-good post Mur. Thanks.