When I was 30, I found myself running a restaurant in rural Majorca, Spain, one hour's drive from the major city of Palma. Armed only with a recent Advanced Certificate from the London Cordon Bleu, I neither spoke the language nor had ever worked in a restaurant at all. I could hardly believe I had been hired. I didn't yet have any idea how little I knew.
My then-husband, David, who had an MBA from Wharton, was bookkeeper. He made $1 an hour. As chef, I made $50 a week. Neither of us spoke Catalan, the patois of French and Spanish-spoken in Majorca. I had barely scraped by college Spanish, confident I would never need it. Wrong again.
The maitre d' and one of the waiters spoke English, but the maids who helped in the kitchen did not. The restaurant was in an old finca, or farmhouse, built around an olive press. There was a massive olive tree just out the door of our bedroom and I could pick figs and roses during the short walk up to the restaurant.
The night before I started the job, I asked a woman who owned a restaurant in Palma if I could stand in the kitchen and watch her chef cook, just for the chance to be in a restaurant kitchen. I huddled in the small pantry closet and watched him roast chickens in advance for the customers. Who knew you could do that? I knew nothing about reheating, something we didn’t do at the Cordon Bleu.
One evening, it rained just as we closed the restaurant. We hadn't seen much rain before that. We welcomed it and that particular, fresh smell rain has after a long dry spell. Taking a drive down the dark and winding country roads, we started seeing little lights dotting the fields. We were bemused, even, perhaps, a little alarmed. Could it be poachers? If so, what on earth were they poaching, and why were they using flashlights to do so?
The next morning, we were eager to share our observations and went up to the restaurant together quite early, finding all of the staff already there and prepared to solve the mystery.
All around the kitchen were metal buckets of snails. Alive. I eyed them warily, having familiarity once before with live snails. The lights we had seen were all the local people out with lanterns and flashlights, looking for snails. In fact, the staff viewed us with a bit of derision for not having a few kilos of our own to add to the stash.
There was a great deal of joking about how many snails everyone could eat, most people claiming 100 each, and a long discussion about the preparation. The upshot was that the snails were washed, and placed back in the buckets. The tops of the buckets were covered with a wire mesh to prevent any wiggling out. The snails were to be fed cornmeal, rosemary or fennel until Sunday, which was several days away.
After church on Sunday, the kitchen, normally empty, was full of rapidly talking people. The maids, their husbands, the wife of the arrogant maitre d’, all moving around, hands in sinks, scrubbing snails, rinsing ducks, separating eggs.
I joined the maitre d’ in moving several tall stockpots to the back of the stove. To each, we added a dead and cleaned duck; a dead and cleaned chicken; handfuls of thyme and fennel from our garden; cut-up onions, and, then, finally, the snails.
The cleaning of the snails had entailed scrubbing the shells before rinsing in vinegar and water. We opened several bottles of a favorite Spanish white wine and poured them atop the snails, then added water to fill the stockpots three quarters of the way to their brims, and covered them with lids.
Turning the gas on high under the pots, we waited until bubbles appeared and then turned the heat down to a simmer. The aroma was tortuous, for we were all ravenous. Meanwhile, we whisked eggs with oil to make the aioli, the local farm-raised eggs mounting easily.
We pulled down the ripe red Majorcan tomatoes from the white tiled arched hallway where they were strung together, separated by knots, to semi-dry. One group chopped the tomatoes while, after what seemed to be a very long time to me and my stomach, the pot was deemed “done.”
Pulling out the chicken and duck with tongs, we cooled them until we could remove the flesh from the bones and discard the skin. We scooped up the snails and put them in another pot while we boiled the stock down to a rich, full flavored broth, as sumptuous as any eaten in a three-star restaurant.
Finally, duck, chicken and snails were stirred into the thick broth and we ladled the mixture into bowls, adding dollops of the aioli at the end. I headed to the terrace, where I could look at the acres of fig and olive trees and the roses lining the walks, and ate my snails slowly, wondering at the magic of the midnight rain.