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Julz’s World: Mad Cows And Frog Legs

Column by Julie Symons, former Napier journalist, current world traveller, now a secretary at the World Health Organization in Switzerland.

There are many initiations you go through to truly feel European. For starters there’s the welcoming kiss on the cheek, the number of air kisses being an art in itself (three in Switzerland, two in Spain and a variable number in other countries).

Then of course there’s the cuisine, which although considerably more kiwi-like than its Asian counterparts, still has it’s fair share of stomach-heaving specialities.

This week I came a step closer to being considered a local, sampling my very first frog legs in France.

I must admit I looked more than a little nervous. The waiter, obviously picking up on the fact, drew out the suspense by bringing out my meal last. My nine dinner companions looked on in disgust as I picked up the first succulent leg between my fingers and tentatively took my first bite.

It was a pleasant surprise. I always expected frog legs to be skinny and crunchy, like roasted cockroaches (and before you ask, no I haven’t tried them either). But Frenchmen must breed genetically modified frogs (or maybe it’s just the nuclear waste seeping into ponds?) because these legs were unnaturally huge and padded with a decent amount of flesh. They tasted, dare I say it, like chicken.

My friends didn’t attempt to disguise their distaste as a neat pile of bones formed on the side of my plate, muttering between mouthfuls of pork that maybe my meal contained a variant strain of Mad Cow disease.

That’s the main topic of conversation sweeping across Europe at the moment. You can’t enter any office or finish any pint without someone voicing fears. Apparently some schools in the UK have banned beef in school lunches, and closer to home (Switzerland that is) I know many people who’ve stopped eating beef. It’s doubly scary because every one has been scoffing the stuff, blissfully unaware of the dangers, for several years. Who knows when an epidemic might start?

Yes, it’s certainly an adventure eating in Europe. I remember the first time I ate in France, back in ’96. My French was hopeless so we asked our friendly waiter to translate the menu. Since his English wasn’t much better, he placed his hands above his head and brayed “baaaaaaaaa”. “Oh, lamb,” I shrieked in delight, “I’ll have that.” Unfortunately (or so we thought at the time) they were all out of “lamb”. The next day we found a different restaurant with an English translation on its menus. Our lamb turned out to be sheep’s brain!

At least last night I was fully prepared for my frog legs, although the English translation did cause its fair share of giggles. One of my friends enjoyed a tasty dish of “intoxicated duck” (we wonder if that’s what caused its untimely death). Personally I nearly went for the plate of “mixed delights”.

That’s the great thing about travelling. Back in New Zealand I was renown as a picky eater. Overseas, I’ve been able to expand my taste buds considerably.

One of my most memorable gastronomic experiences was trying escargot – or snails if you don’t know the lingo. Like frog legs they’re not nearly as vulgar as they sound. Baked in a delectable garlic sauce they’re actually delicious, and there’s nothing better than mopping up the leftover garlic sauce with some freshly baked baguette (French bread). Psychologically however it’s another story.

I stared at my snail for a full five minutes the first time I tried this delicacy, trying to pick up the courage to put it in my mouth. It was a similar feeling to the first time I stood on the Pipeline bungy, willing myself to jump. Totally and utterly terrifying. Eventually I gathered my courage, popped it in and started chewing, but all I could envisage were cute little garden snails slithering round the back yard. The picture in my head wouldn’t disappear and neither would the bizarre texture of the grey lump in my mouth, so I politely declined the second serving.

Of course not all ritualistic meals make your stomach turn. Switzerland is famous for cheese specialities like fondue and raclette. Hungary has its goulash. No trip to Italy is complete without sampling real pizza and pasta. And England? Most locals there are content with a plate of “bangers, mash and baked beans”. Yes, from a restaurant. How adventurous is that? Personally, I’d rather have frog legs and escargot any day.

Copyright Julie Symons 2000.

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