Karikol Slow Food Bruxelles
by Richard Harris, Brussels Belgium
A snail is a snail is a snail? Unless it's a karikol, of course. What's that? Anyone connected with the slow food movement is familiar with the international organization's logo: a handsome red snail that symbolizes taking it easy and taking time to grow, prepare and eat healthy food. In Brussels the movement is represented by Karikol Slow Food Bruxelles. A karikol is a whelk, otherwise known as a sea-snail, and is a traditional street food of Brussels since the seventeenth century. The whelks (doesn't that sound better than sea-snails?) are boiled in a celery, bay leaf and white pepper broth, then carefully removed from their shells (to make sure all sand is removed) and simmered in a second celery, bay leaf and white pepper broth. But in this broth, small hot piri piri peppers are added, although any small hot pepper will do. When you buy them from the street vendor you get a dozen whelks floating in the broth with the celery and the little hot peppers. Armed with a little plastic fork you eat the whelks and then drink the spicy broth. Truly addictive!
Over five hundred years ago, when the Willebroek Canal was built to connect Brussels to the sea, large fishing boats were finally able to unload directly in the city. The whelks that were caught in the nets were an extra that the fishermen didn't bother to sell, or sold for practically nothing. The poor made the most of this cheap source of protein and came up with a delicious but inexpensive way of eating them. So when a slow food chapter was organized here, naming it Karikol was a great way of personalizing the movement as it embodies not only an ancient Brussels culinary tradition, but is also a great example of what slow food stands for: bringing good eating and conviviality together with supporting biodiversity, protecting the environment and forging a direct connection between food producers and consumers.
Karikol engages in many activities including connecting small growers with restaurateurs and consumers, educating the public, promoting urban vegetable gardens, highlighting the wide variety of cuisines available in the city, creating permanent organic public markets and children's programs. Among these is a program to strengthen the growing city-wide production of honey. Since Brussels is 50% open space (composed of forest, farmland, parks and private gardens) and pesticide use is forbidden within city limits honey bees have not only a safe environment but a multitude of different types of flowers to harvest. Karikol has helped Brussels honey to become a hot item. With their support more and more hives are being set up and different types of honey are being produced based on the available flora in each area.
In September they organize a week called TasteBrussels during which almost 100 restaurants feature slow food menus. The week includes open house tours of artisans, organic producers, and related small businesses, films, conferences and how-to sessions. Their close work with Bruxelles-Environnement has led to development of a “My Easy Vegetable Garden” kit which contains four types of seed and all the info necessary to set up a garden. The kit is offered by the city free to anyone interested. The pitch: 1 sq. yd. and one half hour of work per week equals 22 lbs. of harvested vegetables. They hope to double the number of people growing their own in the city.
Slowly but surely, this Karikol is getting results.