Biche-de-Mer

In concluding this chapter, it may not be improper to give the reader a clearer idea of an article of commerce which is destined to make a considerable figure in this narrative, and which has already been frequently mentioned - I mean biche-de-mer. The learned and scientific Doctor Pascalis, after I returned from this my fourth voyage, wrote an article for the public papers, in which he describes it in the following words: -

"It is that mollusca from the Indian Seas which is known in commerce by the French name bouche de mer (a nice morsel from the sea). If I am not much mistaken, the celebrated Cuvier calls it gasteropeda pulmonifera. It is abundantly gathered in the coasts of the Pacific Islands, and gathered especially for the Chinese market, where it commands a great price, perhaps as much as their much-talked-of 'edible birds' nests,' which are probably made up of the gelatinous matter picked up by a species of swallow from the body of these molluscae. They have no shell, no legs, nor any prominent part, except an absorbing and an excretory, opposite organs : but by their elastic rings, like caterpillars or worms, they creep in shallow waters; in which, when low, they can be seen by a kind of swallow, the sharp bill of which, inserted in the soft animal, draws a gummy and filamentous substance, which, by drying, can be wrought into the solid walls of their nest. Hence the name of gasteropeda pulmonifera."

This mollusca is oblong, and of different sizes, from three to eighteen inches in length; and I have seen a few that were not less than two feet long. They are nearly round, a little flattish on one side, which lies next the ground, or bottom of the sea; and they are from one inch to eight inches thick. They crawl up into shallow water at particular seasons of the year, probably for the purpose of gendering, as we often find them in pairs. It is when the sun has the most power upon the water, rendering it tepid, that they approach the shore; and often into places so shallow, that on the tide's receding they are left dry on the coral reef, exposed to the heat of the sun. But they do not bring forth their young in shallow water, as we never see any of their progeny; and the full-grown ones are always seen coming in from deep water. .They feed principally on that class of zoophytes which produce the coral.

The biche-de-mer is generally taken in three or four feet water; after which they are taken to the shore, where they are split at one end with a knife, the incision being one inch or more, according to the size of the mollusca. Through this opening the entrails are forced out by pressure, and they are much like those of any other small tenant of the deep. The article is then washed, and afterward boiled to a certain degree, which must not be too much nor too little. They are then buried in the ground for four hours; then boiled again for a short time, after which they are dried, either by the fire or the sun. Those cured by the sun are worth the most; but where one picul (133 1/3lb.) can be cured that way, I can cure thirty picul by the fire. When once properly cured, they can be kept, in a dry place, for two or three years, without any risk ; but they should be examined once every few months, say four times a year, to see if any dampness is likely to affect them. A picul, according to the Chinese weight, is 133 1/3, lb. avoirdupois.

The Chinese, as before stated, consider biche-de-mer a very great luxury; believing that it wonderfully strengthens and nourishes the system, and renews the exhausted vigour of the immoderate voluptuary. The first quality commands a high price in Canton, being worth ninety dollars a picul; the second quality, seventy-five dollars; the third, fifty dollars; the fourth, thirty dollars; the fifth, twenty dollars; the sixth, twelve dollars; the seventh, eight dollars; and the eighth quality only four dollars per picul. Small cargoes, however, will often bring more in Manilla, Singapore, and Batavia.

This selection is cited and reproduced verbatim in Episode 10 of Pym.

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