So, there we are, walking through native forest on the Isle of Pines, not a care in the world, listening to bird song and footfall gently punctuating a stream of pleasant conversation, when all of a sudden, your guide stops, bends down and flicks away a leaf or two to expose a great, big snail!
Zerena is a native of the Isle of Pines, beautiful with large brown eyes and an arresting smile. She has grown up in this natural paradise and is animated and lively, a grown woman with a child-like exuberance that endears her to all in an instant. The prize, a large land snail endemic to the island (“Escargots de l'Ile des Pins”) is just a part of Zerena's everyday life, but to us, it is yet another colour in the local cultural tapestry… referring, of course, to the ancient Kanak culture, a collective creation of the natives of this region, stretching back for more than five thousand years. This is what we have come to see during our time on the Isle of Pines and with a local guide so honest, open and well-spoken as Zerena, we were busy immersing ourselves in her world, eager to hear her stories, imparted with generosity and grace.
Zerena shows us the difference between the edible land snails and the inedible land snails. She collects them as she walks, tucking each snail into the front of her t-shirt and teaching us the tell-tale signs of a snail on the move. I’m soon finding snails to add to Zerena’s evening feast and am touched when I hear from Zerena that these snails travel in pairs. The move about the forest floor as a couple! She tells me to look for the second snail, it won’t be too far behind! Zerena then goes on to tell us how she intends to create a dish with these edible snails, locally known as “Bulime”, first by boiling them and pulling out the flesh, only to remove entrails and then stuff it back into the shell with garlic and butter — in so doing, making a French dish out of the Kanak staple. This brought us many smiles… with the French culture being so helpful in bridging the gas between what we know and what we’ve just discovered!
I felt so alive in Zerena’s company, knowing that our time together covering the 45-minute trek from Upi Bay and the Bay of Oro served as a bonding between two people from two different countries: one from a small island in the Pacific and one from a much larger island in the Pacific: I am a native of New Zealand and spent many hours “harvesting” snails from the New Zealand flax plants that used to grow is great clumps in our suburban neighbourhood. There is a huge different in the sizes of the snails we collected, I noted, but the excitement was certainly the same: my inner-child came out to play.
I never did get to try a dish of hot Bulime… although this serves as yet another reason to return and reacquaint myself with the Kanak culture… and next time, I’ll both gather AND cook!
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