Fish, frogs and snails
Small Freshwater Fish
Seen from the ramparts of the Grand Place St. Roch the River Vère flows gently through the fields below. The course of this river was straightened in 1967, which explains why a Romanesque bridge sits in the middle of a field quite a ways from the river. During this work, the vestiges of the many and varied ruins of mills, used for grinding flour, were bulldozed as well; and their mill streams were filled in. This affected both the variety and the quantity of fish living in the Vère; and the rest have fallen victim to environmental pollutants. Some locals fish during the season because the river is stocked, but avid fishermen must go to the Aveyron and various inland lakes.
Minnows, vairons, and gudgeon, goujon, abounded in the Vère River. Of the two, the small gudgeons are much preferred for fritures, they are deep fried and eaten whole like white bait. Mr. Deschepper, the former local snail producer, maintains that the secret to tender whitebait is to drop them into a container filled with milk when caught. This softens the tiny skeletons and gives a delicate light taste to the fish.
Trout live in clean, clear, oxygenated and cooler waters , so it is not surprising that the truite de rivière, a white meat trout corresponding to the American mountain trout, is no longer found in the Vère. Pollutants and overfishing mandate that today the river must be stocked in advance of the fishing season but basically local hatcheries supply much of the available white trout for consumption. In the last fifteen years pink fleshed trout, truite saumonée or truite de mer, has become more popular than the river trout. To some it has a more delicate taste than the white meat river trout. Either trout can be used for the recipes given in this chapter.
The recipes are of two types, frying and poaching, the size of the fish determined the method of cooking. Trout of the 1/2 lb size, enough for one person, were generally fried while the larger, 2 lb trout, were poached and served with sauce or vegetables. It is said that all trout must be cooked as quickly as possible after it has been killed, a good trout benefits more from freshness then most fish.
Small river trout which have not matured sufficiently to be eaten separately are prepared in the friture manner of the vaines or placed between a double faced grilled and cooked over an open fire.
Even twenty years ago there was an abundance of this freshwater crustacean from June to October in the pools of the small water fall not far from Puycelsi, known simply as Le Cascade. “There was an ample supply and they were large with firm but delicately flavored meat.” said Jacques Moreau. “We would often just fry them in an old pan or grill them at the edge of the pool and at times bring them home. They did not need sauce, maybe just a bit of salt.” Now it is illegal to catch them.
Morue (Dried Slated Cod)
Dried salted cod could be found in the markets, at the grocers and bought from passing traders. It is an almost indestructible form of preservation. When fresh fish was unavailable dried salted cod was served most Fridays and during Lent, and on other meatless days. “Every Friday we and everybody else, I think, had Brandade.” said Mr. Roques.
Cuisses de Grenouille (Frogs' Legs)
Frogs' legs have never figured prominently in the communal cuisine; and now devotees from Puycelsi find their way to a larger neighboring village, Cahuzac, to eat traditionally cooked frogs' legs. They are prepared much like crayfish and other small river fish. The skinned legs with feet removed, the only edible part of the frog, are plumped in cold water baths until the meat is white, puffy and delicate. Today, almost all frogs’ legs consumed locally have been commercially prepared, frozen and imported.
In general, count on about 6 pair of frogs’ legs per person when the recipe is used as an hors d’oeuvres and 24 pair for the main course.
The abundant petits gris snail of southern France is eaten with great relish, while the larger Burgundian snail, claimed by some to be superior, is hard to find and not really associated with the Southwest. Within the commune lived and worked one of the largest petit gris snail producers, Jean Paul De Scheppers. Now bought out by a Danish and English couple. They supply over 80 restaurants with a species of snail that has been around since the Neolithic era. But above all, they are passionate about their work and can talk for hours about snails. Snails have always been a part of French cuisine, during the Middle Ages they headed the list of “viand mailer” for Lent, and hence were often raised by monks. Snails quickly passed into the daily cuisine; because of their natural abundance. Paul DeScheppers maintained that petit gris is superior to the Burgundian snail for several practical reasons. Both snails have their pancreas located at the end of their body, but the petit gris can be detoxified with fasting while the gland has to be removed manually from the Burgundian snail. Also the needle like appendage located near their heads which both snails use for mating, must be manually removed from the Burgundian but not petit gris.
Between October and April the petit gris hibernates and can only be activated with light. When they have reached about 10 grams they undergo purification, i.e. fasting. Snails may eat plants harmless to themselves but poisonous to humans. Commercially grown snails need to fast for about 12 days, the first 5 - 6 purify the snail meat in general and another 6 are needed to pass the toxins found in the pancreas which can kill humans. During this time a snail will loose about 20% of its body weight; farmers or snail enthusiasts will often feed lettuce to snails during this time, an option not available to a commercial producer. A special diet of aromatic herbs like tarragon, thyme, bay leaves, parsley or celery designed to flavor the snail meat and may be introduced at this point for 2 days.
“Above all, tell your readers that to faire bavader snails is cruel and serves no purpose and at best will toughen the meat,” Descheppers exclaimed with great zeal. The following is a harrowing description of the old process:
Wash snails, place in a large earthenware pot, with a sprig of any of the aromatics, cover with a grill. Next day wash again, replace sprig. Do this for five to six days. To hastening the slobbering some cooks cover the snails with salt and with gloved hands thoroughly mix them daily, wash them, and salt again, etc. When the snails cannot slobber anymore than they are washed in salted vinegar water and rinsed in fresh water. There is also the belief that including a Gauloise wrapped in muslin will stop the snail from foaming during the cooking process.
Once the snail is ready for cooking, it is placed in boiling water or a court bouillon, and boiled for 5 minutes. The preferred recipe being: A pinch of salt, two sliced onions, three or four cloves, two sliced carrots, a bouquet garni of choice, and lemon peel are optional additives, and wine or water as is needed.
Locally cooked snails are generally eaten one of two ways with aioli or with a sauce based on sausage meat.
Snails not purchased from a farm are best in May, June, and July, but locals can be seen beating the grasses gently with a stick in search of snails anytime of the year after a heavy rain fall.