Muuuuummmm! I screeched down the hallway from under my bed covers. She came running in. What’s wrong honey, did you have a bad dream? No, I was just hoping you could tell me what day it is please? I asked. It’s Saturday, she said. And if I burnt the bacon you’re in big trouble. Yes! I thought. No school on Saturday. The next ten or so blissful hours of daylight were mine, and I could do with them what I pleased. To a normal six year old, the possibilities would have been endless. But to me, Saturday was about indulging whatever my current fetish was. It had varied over the years from eating chalk while my parents weren’t looking, to making card towers. My drug of choice on this fine Saturday involved collecting discarded snail shells. They could be found scattered all over our farm, often in clusters, like tiny abandoned houses in a once thriving ghost town. I suppose you never imagine a community of snails thriving, so perhaps just being, is a better word. Either way, it was like one had popped off, and the rest had gone out in sympathy. The shells came in a range of colours, depending on how long they’d been uninhabited. The most common ones were the white ones, the oldest ones. They were similar in both colour and texture to the old steak bones we fed our working dogs, and were really light to pick up. One morning when I was out on one of my regular scavenger hunts, I found a bunch of these white ones all together under the big old pine tree in our horse paddock. There would have been about 20 of them nestled in the grass. It was probably my biggest bounty to date. Squatting low like a little soldier crab, I treated them exactly the same way my mum did the apples in our local supermarket. One at a time I picked them up and brought them right in close to my face. I checked each one for blemishes, judging them all according to weight, size, colour and cleanliness (I didn’t much care for the ones all plugged up with dirt). I popped four of the best ones into my little basket – the same one I’d use for egg hunting every Easter. Their sameness annoyed me – it was a primal lesson in quality versus quantity. The feeling was the similar to the one I had every morning before school. I’d stand in my undies, staring into the cupboard, only to find four versions of the exact same starched blue uniform. Dissatisfied, the hunt continued further afield to the outskirts of our cattle yards. On the far side I could make out my dad’s tattered old farm hat. He was a man of necessity and only owned two hats – the one he was wearing then, and his ‘good hat’, which he wore on special occasions, to town or funerals. He owned enough jeans to get him through the week – which made mum really mad when they got too dirty to recycle - and managed to eat just one square of dark chocolate each night. His lectures were always surmised to one line and his listening to speaking ratio was virtually even. He’d once told me that people in France ate snails. He’d even tried one on a tour when he was there. When I asked him if they were good, he said they sort of tasted like dirty mushrooms. I asked if he ever felt bad that we ate things that were once alive. It’s different if you kill things to eat, he said. You should never, ever, just kill something for the fun of it.
Over in the yards dad was working one of the young horses, breaking him in until he was quiet enough to ride. He stood relatively still in the centre of the round yard that had big logs for rails. A slack rope hung from his hand, snaking along the dirt and up to the horse’s halter. Technically this process was called ‘breaking in’, but it never really fit the way my dad trained our horses. I don’t want him to be scared of me, I want him to trust me, he’d always say. And in life Al, you will never build trust through force. Perched on the side of the trough I watched as our horse galloped around and around in controlled circles. He was a magnificent animal, with a beige coat and black mane and tail. His eyes were focussed firm in front of him and even from where I sat I could hear the rhythmic grunt of his breathing. Dad held up a hand. Whoa boy, he said. Immediately the horse skidded to a halt, sending up a cloud of dust in his wake. I could see dad’s lips moving as he stroked him firmly down the side of the neck. I dipped my fingers into the trough, which after sitting in the hot midday sun felt like a cup of tea. A thick layer of spongy moss had formed a skin on top of the water. The horses usually just muzzled a hole in it, like the fishermen I’d read about who had to cut holes in the ice to drop their lines in. I started pulling it out and liked the way it felt in my hands. Kind of like when you walk through mud. Objectively you know it’s disgusting, but it feels so good. It seemed to be connected in one big web. Like a magician’s handkerchief, I tugged and tugged, but it just kept coming. It was only when I had it all out and the murky water settled that I noticed them. Clingy to the walls of the trough, just below the water line were a bunch of tiny black snail shells. They were only about the size of the pearls on mum’s fancy necklace, but there would have literally been hundreds of them. I tried to pick one off, but it didn’t come easy. Picking up a thin sharp rock I scraped a bunch of them into my hand. Even though they were much smaller than the white ones in my basket, they felt denser. I scattered them into the basket over the others. Then came the fun part.
nside dad’s work shed I grabbed a hammer off the greasy bench and sat down on the cement. Even in the heat in the heat it felt cold and hard. I took out each one of the snail shells and lined them up in a neat row. Systematically, I began bringing the hammer down on top of each one, starting with the white ones. Being the oldest, the shells were weak and shattered easily. Crunch, crunch, crunch, they went. I paused when I came to the black ones. They seemed to have moved slightly from where I’d left them. Was I imagining it? They were so tiny and I had to hold my hand really steady so as not to miss them altogether. I thrust the hammer down, but the noise was different. It was more of a dull squelch than a brittle crunch. Lifting the hammer up I saw what looked like a squished blueberry. The snail was still inside. Without thinking I raised the hammer again. And again, until four smashed blueberries lay in a pool of their own juices. I could have killed every snail in that trough. I should have felt powerful. The image of my dad stroking our beige horse popped into my head. I felt sick –like I’d eaten a bunch of dirty mushrooms. I picked their flattened carcasses off the cement like used chewing gum and dug them a mass grave by the trough. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I chanted, resting a palm gently on the freshly turned soil.
- 2 cups wholemeal flour
- 2 cups plain white flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- Himalayan pink salt and pepper
- 1 large teaspoon sugar
- I cup lukewarm water
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
- 4 cups mixed gourmet mushrooms (I used oyster, shitake, enoki and swiss brown)
- Finely sliced red onion
- Basil pesto
- Juice of 1 lemon + zest
- 4 cloves garlic
- Olive oil
- 1 cup smoked mozzarella, grated
- 1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
- Siracha + lemon wedges to serve
- For the dough, place yeast and sugar in 1 cup of lukewarm water. Leave it sit for about 10-15 minutes. The water should have bubbled and formed a think layer of foam.
- In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder and 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add 1 teaspoon salt, rosemary and thyme. Pour the yeast mixture over the top and combine.
- On a floured surface kneed the mixture together, adding more flour if it’s sticky. Then cut in half and roll into two balls. Place each in a large bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, coat mushrooms in oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and finely grated garlic and bake in a moderate oven for about twenty minutes.
- Once the dough balls have doubled in size, roll them out as thin as possible and bake in a moderate over for about 15 minutes. Top them with pesto, mushrooms, red onion and both cheeses and bake for another 15 minutes or until cheese is golden brown and melted.
- Serve topped with siracha/hot sauce and more lemon.