Nomad Notes from Basque Country: “I Ate Tiny Little Sea Terrorists & Didn’t Scream”

May 16, 2023

A fish hater tries the unspeakable at an oyster bar in Biarritz

There are things that you do growing up in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and things you do not do.

For example, it’s perfectly fine if you’d like to cut out the heart of a mammal and serve it for breakfast, but fish, by which I mean anything that smells like a sailor’s groin—WHICH IS ALL OF IT— is not something that people like me grow up knowing how to do.

So when you take me to F-R-A-N-C-E, and you put me in a raw S-E-A-F-O-O-D B-A-R, I have to coach myself in the corner. (“Just plug your nose and pretend it’s a wet noodle!”—a piece of advice that is only effective when high. Since I am never high, my life is perpetually just one bite away from total psychological ruin.)

Here’s what happens when I’m confronted with a buffet of tiny, squishy baby aliens from the underworld:

  1. I will go to the bathroom and attempt to walk in such a way that I seem entirely cool and unaffected, like I do this all the time. I am sophisticated! See how my hair waves in the breeze behind me? I belong here. I practically know the owners!
  2. Upon arrival to the bathroom, I will frantically search for a light switch that will inevitably be on the outside, likely while tripping over a trash can.
  3. After facing the murderous stares of three other people impatiently waiting to pee, I’ll pull up the restaurant’s menu on my phone to find anything that (a) I can pronounce; and, (b) Won’t cause suspicion that I am, in fact, a feral redneck slob.
  4. On the way back, I’ll spill someone’s drink while feather boa dancing my way down the aisle as if I am, again, ENTIRELY COOL AND UNAFFECTED. (I don’t know why, but when I get nervous, I feather boa dance. Someone needs to help me.)

It was a similar scene at  La Cabane à Huîtres , an oyster bar at the top of the hill in Biarritz, located in France’s Basque region. I had managed to survive the gauntlet back from the bathroom, though the pressure was on more than ever: the owner, who was serving us at the bar, was extra, extra stylish, with big, black Iris Apfel glasses, and the kind of white blouse that says, “Best of luck trying to be me.”

But god, was she nice. Of course she was nice. The people you want to hate always are.

“This wine is aged under the—what is it called?—the sea,” she told us in adorably French-accented English as she showed us the bottle of  Egiategia . And, in fact, that’s exactly why we were there: it was the wine I was after more than anything, having read about this witchcraft on The New York Times’ 36 Hours in Biarritz.

Egiategia: the winemaker that’s dunking vats of white wine in the bay of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, then letting them hang out for 3 months underwater—chilling, enjoying the waves, getting a delightful tickle from the ocean movement. We had a bottle of the Dena Dela, which has a fresh slice of lemon thrown into the vat, made with the Colombard and Ugni Blanc grapes, and listed as being from “south-south-west France,” in case you tried to lump them in with the rowdy riviera crowd. (I like this denomination. I may start saying “fish-fish-hater,” just to make the point.)

Let me tell you: apparently I eat all sorts of things when you ploy me with French wine. Being an oyster bar, we ordered oysters—of which, to my own surprise, I have recently become a fan (perhaps because all I have to do is swallow, which goes along with many of my philosophies). However, these oysters they served us? MY GOD, THE SALT! THE BRINE! THE LEMON! ALL TOGETHER WITH THE CRISP, REFRESHING WHITE! I was finally getting the hang of this.

The oysters were the “Spéciales Bretagne N°3,” which came from Brittany and were listed on the menu as “oyster iodine of the open sea.” So apparently, I don’t like fish and I don’t like seafood, but I DO like oysters and I do like it when they taste like the sea. Who am I??? (It’s the salt. Pour salt on anything and I’ll eat it.)

But of course, I shouldn’t have said that, because soon my dining partner was ordering a “Portion of Snales”—and it didn’t need to be spelled correctly in English to know what I had gotten myself into. 🐌

Escargot: the thing you’re terrified to eat and also really, really mad at yourself for not eating.

France is the biggest consumer, as you might expect—Portugal’s surprisingly #2—where they eat 7 million of these tiny little mouth terrorists a year.

And yet, there is something about being at a stylish little bar in France, where the white-bloused owner—whose name I have learned since is, of course, “Sophie”—oozes elegance, and guests have some of the best highlights you’ve ever seen, and yet there’s this total artsy-cool air about it all: the Chuck Taylors spotted under the maxi dress; the photograph of the naked man carrying two suitcases; the straw hat with “à huîtres” sewn in blue cursive, and the chef, who is Sophie’s partner, wearing a zip-up rocker sweatshirt as he floats in and out of the kitchen, teaching one of the young girls how to shuck oysters—and, for a moment, stopping to explain it to us, too. (I had lots of questions, such as “Will you please adopt me?”)

Even a fish hater like me wants to buy into the experience of it all: this lifestyle, these people, their glamorously hip way of moving through the world. Or, at least, a 30’ x 10’ wooden cabin filled with chalkboards, fish & booze. So, when the snails showed up—a plate of thick, pointy, spiral-shaped, green-tinted shells that had the shape of, dare I say, Velveeta Shells & Cheese (minus the cheese)—I gazed upon the plate with newfound bravery: I, Ash Ambirge, was going to do it.

Let me just pause right here and say: I’m glad I didn’t look up any of the details beforehand. I quickly learned that this type of snail isn’t actually classified as escargot, which are technically only land snails—a fact that disappoints me greatly. (Now I’m just casually eating snails for no good reason?!) Instead, what I’m eating is whelk, which just happens to be the largest type of sea snail in France’s Atlantic waters. Because of COURSE it is. Of course that would be my destiny.

When empty, the whelk shell is cream-colored, but when alive, it’s covered with a thin brownish layer called the periostracum, something that sounds a little bit too much like an undignified human organ to want to say aloud. But the little bastard is cunning: the whelk uses the edge of its shell to burst open the shells of other sea creatures it wants to eat like Jack the sadistic seahorse Ripper. Apparently, it’s a carnivore——AND APPARENTLY——it feeds on worms and other mollusks, a fact that does not soothe me at all.

I am expecting a little shop of horrors to arrive on the plate: Teeth! Antennae! Fangs! A slimy, flappy, wavy, wormy, tongue-like bottom! TEXTURE. So much texture. And eyessss—terrifying little pingpong eyeballs that I’d have to put in my mouth.

Alas, when the plate arrives it looks like an innocent collection of little seashells, the same kind I collected when I was nine. 🐚

Then, we see the toothpicks. I realize the mission all-too-soon. There is a neat little pile on the side of the plate, and we quickly gather that these were for poking: stick one inside the shell, swirl it around, rip the carcass from its tomb, and then pop it into your mouth, like a gastropod popsicle.

He goes first. Poke, swirl, pop. I widen my eyes in fear.

“Nottttt baaaddddd,” he says nonchalantly, chewing and swallowing. He eats another, then queues one up for me.

I can’t look at it. He assures me that there are no antennae, nor feet, nor giant, creepy eyeballs, and so finally, I look. I am surprised to see what amounts to a little white blob, like a mystery-flavored gummy snack. When I look this up later, I discover that, when alive, it does look a bit like the Ghostbusters marshmallow man—which is exactly what I said since the beginning: squishy little baby aliens, indeed.

I take a deep breath.

Hit “record” on Instagram stories.

And then slowly the blob comes floating toward my mouth. As soon as it hits my tongue, I feel relief: it doesn’t have the texture of a cow’s tongue, as I’d imagined, but rather, like eating a used tire. In other words: much better than expected.

But what was surprising, however, was the taste. Once I got past the gore, I realized something even more terrifying: this was delicious.

What??? How? Who?

The aioli, of course. Like salt, it’s another one of those “makes anything edible” kind of concoctions. Fortunately, they gave us a vat of it, making everything taste like an X-rated garlicky eden. (I mean, I guess if you have to use a slug as a vehicle for garlic and oil, I’m on board?)

The good news is, there are whopping amounts of antioxidants in these little snail bods: we’re talking anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, and probably anti-aging, if I’m being honest, given that I’m pretty sure if I ate these things all the time, rather than Fritos Scoops dipped in jalapeño cream cheese, I wouldn’t have this fatty, sagging neck.

Though it must be said that, without my fatty, sagging neck, I wouldn’t have been wearing a turtleneck, and I have to say: that turtleneck was making me look way more chic than I was. Between the snails, which I managed to eat without screaming, the wine, and that sweet, sweet turtleneck, I was convinced that I, Ash Ambirge, had pulled it off.

And you know what? It was one of the best experiences I had all year.

There is joy in challenging yourself to be a new person for a night. There is joy in wondering if maybe there could be a new seafood-eating you, on the other side of that bite. That maybe that plate comes with all sorts of other change, too: more exercise, less wine aged under an armpit, more time for volunteering, less wishing the neighbor’s yappy dog would get a rare form of melanoma and croak.

New experiences make us new people—and that’s where the joy is.

It is not the snails, but the effort: to have the courage to show up and try on a new life. To believe different things about yourself, even if only for an evening. To imagine yourself as the woman with the Iris Apfel glasses, serving the wine, being effortless and original and cool as she pops a raw piece of fish into her mouth.

You might not be that person tomorrow (or, um, ever), but tonight, you are no one else. Tonight, you are free. None of your usual hangups are here; tonight, none of your old nonsense comes along.

Sometimes, we all need a night off from the person we’ve been all our lives.

And sometimes, even fish-fish haters from Susquehanna County can find delight in the unexpected, as they walk ever-so-awkwardly out of a place and think: “Best of luck trying to be me.”

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