Nothing New Under the Sun

Just a few days after the Six Day War in 1967, my girlfriend and I visited Cairo. We had recently graduated from university and were on the Grand Tour as it was done in those days, i.e. sometimes we were hippy backpackers and sometimes we splurged on a comfortable room.

In Cairo we splurged and stayed at the Shepherd’s Hotel, which we had read in Europe on Five Dollars a Day was one of the grand old colonial jewels. Of course, we visited the Cairo Museum, which was thought of as one of the wonders of the world. Our guide was a long lean bearded Coptic, wearing a caftan. He could have been a character out of Indiana Jones. He led us though the treasures, always laughing at our surprise and amazement. After each artefact, he would comment wisely with a knowing grin, “After all there is nothing new under the sun!”

Some fifty years later, last Boxing Day, in the Oxfordshire countryside, we had a very original day. We were at a rough shoot and afterwards a large group of thirty or so locals, adults and children, enjoyed a banquet at a long table.  The lunch turned out to be  a new take on the old favourite celebration, which traditionally offers a game stew accompanied by mash potatoes and a steaming fruit pudding.

One guest was from Denmark and his wife, Bianca, was from Ukraine. She was 6’2″ in her stocking feet. To this usually “tweedy” occasion, she wore 4″ heels and a fur coat.  She towered over even the tallest men there. Bianca and her Danish husband Mogens had brought herrings and schnapps from Denmark. These proved to be the most delicious treats I had had in years.

There were four different types of herrings. One was a sweet pickle; one was in a curry mayo, almost like coronation chicken. There were two other versions which were equally delicious. Accompanying this were a selection of herbal schnapps, each with a distinct taste, and each with a powerful punch.

I mused as I sat there enjoying these novel dishes how shooting lunches are no longer distinctly English.  Looking over at Bianca in her stilettos, it didn’t even seem very much of a country field sport. We were at an international event, here in the backwoods of darkest Oxfordshire. It occured to me how accustomed we have become to change.  We don’t even blink an eye when traditions take a dramatic trn.

On my right was a Dutchman, Karl, who had met his wife in Wyoming. Karl had brought an even more unusual offering, snail caviar! Unlike the salted and matured roe of the sturgeon which comes from the Caspian Sea, and that we know as Beluga or Seruga, this was a truly new delicacy.

Cavaire l’Escargot is now on menus of three-star restaurants as well as on order from Harrods. It tastes of wild mushrooms. It is not cheap.  A 30g jar costs 49 euros and 50g is 82 euros. These eggs are called “white pearls,” and unlike the snails that are usally consumed with garlic and butter, they do not come from Eastern Europe.  White pearls are conserved in salt from Guerande and can be kept for three months in the fridge in vacuum-sealed jars.  They come from gros gris, (fat grey) snails, a North African variety. The average snail lays about 100 eggs, once a year in springtime.

Karl served the snail caviar on toast with chilled champagne and a sage leaf. There were “oohs and ahhs” all around as this unusual delicacy was sampled.

I guess what I’m getting at is that change is an everyday occurrence in these days and times. We are acclimatized to the Shock of the New, on our palates as well as our palettes.

Salim, our guide to the Cairo museum some fifty years ago, would probably smile and dismiss our new gastronomic dishes as “old hat” and lead us to a fossil of l’escargot ancienne and tell us that the pharaohs ate snail caviar most weekdays. He would insist “There is nothing new under the sun!”

— Mrs M

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