Listen to the podcast here: St. Hippolyte
That night we slept in a car. A name of a ville was yet unknown to us. We took a turn into a field road by a nice big house when it was getting dark. All we knew was that to the right, there was a coast with one of the most wonderful beaches because we splashed in the water there during the day.
That was after we’d passed Perpignan on our way up north towards the Cote d’Azur, which we were not quite sure we were in any need of seeing after that splash earlier in the day.
I woke up first. Nature called. The dog was barking like crazy somewhere in that house we had passed in the darkness.
Now I knew why. We were only a few metres from its jaws. The spot was an empty space between the fence and the field that was now purple from the heavy grape bunches hanging from the bushes …. and I soooo needed to peee!
Ignoring the dog and the potential onlookers, i.e. from the window, I did my best to hide well behind the car. It was time to get going before some local Monsieur called the police or something.
Since we were in wine country, we took a bunch… or two… with us. But wait wait! I have an idea on how to pay you back, Monsieur!
A very tall tower appeared in front of us and it looked like a really good day ahead. Because where there is a tower, there is either a castle or a nice big church packed with awesome architecture! What more does one need after sleepig on the field of vines?
Oh yea, well… a pastry and a cup of stroooong coffee… yes.
I could almost smell the above when we were approaching that building with a tower.
The ville was called St. Hyppolyte GPS : 42.78262222 N, 2.964302778 E, as well as Saint-Hippolyte, also known as Saint-Hippolyte-de-la-Salanque. This little place of so many names that is situated in the Region of French Catalunia, and in Catalan is known as Sant Hipòlit de la Salanca, can be found otherwise within Languedoc-Russillion, in the Pyrénées-Orientales department, in Occitania, in southern France.
And I’m telling you all this simply to distinguish this place from all other multiple St. Hyppolyte’s that were sprinkled around various areas of the country. Well, looks like he was one popular martyr. As such the etymology could not be any simpler here – Saint Hippolytus is the name of the Patron Saint of the city, to whom the church is dedicated.
…And the coffee and pastry they serve there in a small cafe on the square were perfect!
The town’s coat of arms shows St Hippolytus during his martyrdom, dragged by a galloping horse. The background of the coat of arms is the representation of the Catalan flag.
The description of the coat of arms of St Hippolyte is relatively simple… apparently…. and when translated, it goes something like this:
“From gold to four pals of mouths, to Saint Hippolyte martyr dragged by a horse, all of silver, spitting on the whole. “
Let us dig into some notions of heraldism then because I find this particular coat of arms to be super interesting.
*First of all, the background is not divided into several parts.
*The description of a coat of arms always begins with its color. So let’s break down that crazy sounding sentence: the first two words “from gold…” – the background starts with the yellow color.
*”…to the four pals of mouths” – these are the 4 red vertical stripes. These two points define the base of the Catalan flag.
The legend has it that in a year 897 the Count of Barcelona, Guifré el Pilós, Wilfred the Hairy, set out to help the troops of Charles II the Bald, King of the Franks fighting the Arab army of Ismail ibn Mussa. Mortally wounded during the siege of Lleida, Wilfred, as part of his last wish, asked Charles to create a sign that could be used by his successors. Charles responded by dipping 4 fingers into the wound of the dying Wilfred and drawing four stripes with them on his golden shield.
As such the yellow lines on the Catalan flag are the original color of the shield and the four stripes symbolize the blood of Giufré el Pilós.
*”…to Saint Hippolyte martyr dragged by a horse, all of silver….” – the Saint and the horse are depicted in white color hence the mention of silver.
*”…spitting on the whole” here means that the Saint is on top/ in the foreground of the rest of the coat of arms.
Saint Hippolyte is located in the plain of Salanque. It is a perfectly flat geographical area resembling a raindrop, located between Saint-Laurent and Salses and it can be reached by the road that connects Rivesaltes and Barcarès, just north of Perpignan.
If you read my article You think you can pee? You never tried me! about the Oppidum D’Enserune and L’étang de Montady, (if not, click on the below link), you will already know that this area of France was once a big fat swamp.
Same story can be applied to many other villages in the Salanque region also known as Pyrenees Orientales. The swamp was definitively drained by the Templars, who played some role in the history of the village. And this is how far back we can travel because the soil of Roussillon is too acidic to preserve the bones hence prehistory in this region is non existant.
The Indo-European peoples that inhabited the region gave way to the Celts around 500 BC. And then the Romans arrived here and built the Via Domitia which crosses the plain of Roussillon. It appears in the current department of Pyrénées-Orientales in the Corbières, along the pond of Salses, passes through Salses, St Hippolyte, near Bompas, arrives at the Celtic capital Ruscino and continues towards Elne, Le Boulou, Le Perthus where it leaves the department towards Spain via the Pass of Panissars.
And who remembers what Romans used to transport from Hispania to clean their teeth with? Yes – the urine of young Iberians! Read about it in my other article: When mommy says “eat your veggies” – eat them! Diced.
The Via Domitia was a route necessary to connect provinces of Spain with Rome during the reign of Roman Empire. It was an access road created by Dominus Ahenobarbus linking Beaucaire in the Gard to the Perthus, crossing the Languedoc, the narrow passage between the marshy ponds and the Corbières, the Roussillon, and finally the Albères. Moreover to pass the Pyrenees this road was split into two. An eastern part passed through the coast and the village of Portus Vénéris (Port-Vendres) and the other passed through the Perthus pass, via the village of Clusa.
Via was divided into stages – stations, marked by a marker named “Milliaire” – Mile Post. One Roman mile is equivalent to 1481 meters and a fraction. Some of these symbolic milestones served as travel stops. You could find a hotel there in a form of a Roman style villa with rooms that were available for rent. As traffic grew over time, some of these stations expanded and turned into villages. And among the others, like for example Saint-Laurent de la Salanque or Salses, this was also the case of Saint Hippolyte.
The Mile Posts themselves were monoliths about 2 meters high, engraved with the name of the emperor who had erected them. The one in St. Hippolyte says:
Flavio Valerio nobilissimo Caesari… To Flavius Valerio Constantine a very noble Caesar…
Traces of Via Domitia can be found in places to this day. The first terminal is 2 Kms west of Beaucaire, in the Gard. From there, you can follow the still existing path that leads you to other stations, most of which are still in good condition, all the way to Perthus. The best known place is Panissars, above the Perthus. GPS : 42.47953064 N, 2.843871666 E
The Romans reigned here until 340 AD.
811 AD marks the Christianization of the region of Roussillon after the reconquest from the Saracens. First written mention of St. Hippolyte comes from the 10th century. During Middle Ages the village depended on the county of Roussillon and therefore on the kingdom of Aragon. Alfonso of Aragon decided to fortify the settlement in the eleventh century. He built a castle with four towers, two out of which survived till our times. The village was of importance to the kings due to its location near the border that was established in 1258 and passed through Salses. In the 12th century, the castle was owned by King James 1st.
Pons de Vernet, who owned the lordship of St Hippolyte during 13th century, sold several plots of land and buildings to the Templar of Mas Deu. On his death in 1211 he also presented them with the castle and all the property he owned in the area. This is how the village came under the control of the Order of the Temple who had already resided there for some time beforehand.
In 1190 they established a hospital that functioned there until the 17th century. The village eventually became a complete possession of the Templars until Philip IV, who ordered the suppression of the order. He then passed it onto the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, that scattered part of their possessions.
The 16th century is marked by the Franco-Spanish War, which had heavy consequences on the villages of Roussillon. In 1542 the French, attacking the Salanque, destroyed a large part of the village. The fort, the walls and the church were also widely affected.
In the 17th century, the castle became a property of the powerful Oms family. In 1565 the Marquise d’Oms stayed there regularly, and in 1633, it was inhabited by Jeanne de Vilaplane, wife of the Marquis of Oms, Foix and Béarn.
From the 19th century, it is sold in small pieces, then we find it in 1863 when it was acquired by André Guiter, carpenter and cabinetmaker, who buys at the same time the oil mill. Finally at the end of the nineteenth century, the rest of the castle is sold to the Sisqueille family.
Nowadays, the castle is a communal property, and it operates as a museum.
French Catalunia is yet another term which can be used to describe this region. And so if you ask the Catalan which animal best represents his region, he will most likely answer either a donkey or a snail.
Snails are nutritional and always existed in French diet. There are proves that even prehistoric men consumed them and loved them grilled – the remains of charred shells were found in caves.
The breeding of snails appeared with the Romans. They were the ones who created the first helicicultures that they called “snails”. The Celts, on the other hand, consumed them as desserts. Later, in the Middle Ages, the population ate them fried, boiled or even on skewers!
The sailors’ trick quickly raised the interest and made the French understand the importance of this produce. Sailors knew to bring barrels filled with snails on board their boats. These provided fresh meat at times when they no longer had any left.
In France, two types of snails are eaten: the small gray (Helix aspersa) and the Burgundy snail (Helix pomatia). In Catalonia, the little gray ones would be more popular. They are 26 to 30 mm in size and live locally in Languedoc but also Provence, Brittany and Charente. The best are obviously those that you will find yourself in the grass, after a rainy day. This activity is becoming less popular since the urbanization of the region. There is no shortage of snails in France though as they are being farmed nowadays. It takes only 6 months for a snail to grow on the farm whereas it would take 18 months for it to fully grow in nature.
Back in 2013 90% of snails consumed in France came from Poland. Burgundy snails (Helix pomatia) which in Poland are called winniczek, are now protected in France by a ban which prevents them from being harvested during the reproductive season between 1st of April and 30th of June.
The issue of Polish snails being served around France, especially during the Annual French Snail Festivals became such a big deal that it was raised by the Senator Yves Détraigne who stated that:
‘If we do not distinguish the ‘made in France’ from the ‘made in Poland’, we are shooting ourselves in the foot’.
British snail farmer Helen Howard also said that her buisness is booming. She sells Helix aspersa muller (petits gris) or maxima (gros gris) as well as the Helix pomatia known as Roman snails.
Snails in tins can be expensive costing Eur25 for an 800g tin of the Helix pomatia. I tried them once, pickled. Tasted a bit like mushrooms really, only when I saw the little flakey pieces of them fallen to the bottom of the jar I somehow lost the apetite….
In Roussillon region where St. Hyppolyte is located, the “Brotherhood of the Snail of Roussillon” promotes the petit-gris snails, offers workshops and tasting as well as provides information on protection of the species in their natural environment.
These days snails are often pre-cooked and then removed from the shells only to then be mixed with paste made out of herbs that would then fill the shells, sprinkled with some cheese and baked. Just like mules or mussels.
Let me share this recipe with you then for the Polish Baked Snails French Style 🙂
- snails – garden ones, in the desired amount
- sage, rosemary – dry, 1 tablespoon of each
- garlic – 3 cloves
- parsley – 3 tablespoons, chopped
- butter – 150 g
- salt and pepper – to taste
Wash the snails well and then drop them into the boiling water for approximately 2 minutes. After this time, they can be taken out and drained.
Remove the meat from the shell making sure that you remove the intestine too.
Using either a pressure cooker or a regular pot filled with water, cook the snail meat with sage and rosemary for another 2 hours. You can use this time to clean the shells either by boiling them or by pouring hot water over them. You can also prepare your paste now by mixing the butter with parsley, garlic, salt and pepper.
Rinse and cool the snail meat. You can also sprinkle them now with some salt. You will notice that the meat has shrank of course, as such you will now need 2 or 3 pieces of snail to fill the shell. Cover them with the pre-made paste, place on the tray with the opening facing up so that the butter would not spill out of the shell, cover with tin foil and bake for about 10 minutes.
Serve with whatever you want and what pleases your guests but they generally reccommend white wine.
We did not eat Les Escargots in St. Hippolyte but after having our lovely coffee and pastry we headed onto the market square where the farmers had all their producs displayed from early morning hours.
Many years later when working at Ryanair I emailed Perpignan airport looking for some documents and the person I spoke to happened to be very friendly and chatty. So we took up the subject of fruits and veggies sold at the St. Hippolyte market and we found a common language right away.
Then I thought of all the years I used to bring muffins to the office on my birthday. And I mean thousands of muffins, boxes of muffins! For everyone. Just, to celebrate being alive. And a great thought occured to me then that since fruit and veg in Ireland are so tasteless why not make a deal with the local farmers there, in the south of France and have them deliver crates to the airport. These could then be sold in the office or spread among the office staff as a treat and a “thank you”. You know, peace, love and harmony, packed with vitamines sort of stuff…
That could also potentially buy me out in case the Monsieur from the field we slept on wanted to chase us for the stolen grapes…
In the meantime, the guy from the airport promised to send me a crate of peaches… but must have forgotten….
So I’m still waiting….
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