A chunk of crusty French bread, the delicious aroma of hot buttery garlic and a chilled glass of French white wine. Wouldn't you want to eat snails? Seen as a delicacy, snails are much appreciated by the French who consume 40,000 metric tons of snails a year.
We’ve all seen it (possibly more than once…) when Vivienne (our heroine) tackles the tricky business of eating snails in ‘Pretty Woman’. Not an easy task for they are indeed ‘slippery little buggers’.
But trust me, the combat is truly worthwhile as snails are really good to eat. While most of them are served in delicious garlic butter, there are other ways to eat them – with Provençal recipes serving them in a piquant sauce, baked in juicy tomatoes or served on toast with an accompanying sauce and roasted pine nuts.
Once you could only find snails in restaurants were they normally appeared on the menu as a starter. Most restaurants served six snails but some offered up to twelve.
Nowadays you can buy them either frozen and ready prepared in supermarkets packaged in their shells, stuffed with garlic and parsley butter and presented on a pre-formed tin foil “plate”. You can also buy tinned snails and shells separately and either buy or make your own garlic butter.
The Proper Utensils
If you are going to eat snails in a restaurant (or at home) you will require two utensils: a very slender two-pronged snail fork and a pair of snail tongs.
With the snails hot from the oven, pick up your snail tongs in your left hand and squeeze them so the two “curved” spoons open up and you can place them around the main body of the snail shell. Once you’ve done that, use the snail fork to pry out the snail. Do not let go of your tongs but hold them firmly and gently while you turn and extract the meat from the shell. Everybody has difficulty using the tongs at first so don’t worry if the snails slip around in your dish – you’ll soon get the hang of things. Just take it slowly (snails cannot be rushed…) and enjoy your meal.
Most people dunk the snail meat in the sauce prior to eating them. However, after a while you may find you prefer the flavour of the meat to the strong garlic sauce. The first time I ate snails (as a child) I really didn’t like them but loved the garlic butter. Later, as I grew older I found myself enjoying the taste of snails more than the buttery sauce. Their taste is delicate and difficult to describe but to me it’s like a combination of tender chicken, paté and lobster all rolled into one (and they are divine with pine nuts…).
Snail Production in France
Snails production in France is limited to 300 farms. While farms can take various forms, from agricultural colleges to bigger farmhouses, breeding snails is a difficult business as they are very sensitive to their environment. Humidity and heat are important factors, but drought can ruin a farm quickly so it is normal to find more snails farms in hot and rainy places.
Despite their traditional association with Burgundy, the Burgundy snails refuse to breed if packed into farms and so can only be gathered in the wild, yet strict restrictions in place since 1979 and high labour costs mean hardly any are now picked in the French countryside. Thus, up to 95% of snails sold in France are actually cheaper and fatter varieties gathered from as far afield as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and even Turkey and therefore means that the common label “escargot de Bourgogne” does not refer to the territory in central France but to a large wide variety of edible land snail common across Europe. It also means that the label does not come with the geographic protections enjoyed by other parts of the food and drink industry, for example, that Champagne comes only from the eastern Champagne region.
A Little Bit of History
Snails have been eaten for thousands of years. Discarded roasted snail shells are a frequent component of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean area.
It was the Romans who really developed the industrial breeding of snails and even had a spoon they named after snails, a “cochlear”: it had a pointed end on its handle for prying snails out of their shells.
Pliny tells us that Fulvius Hirpinus was the first to engage in snail-farming at Tarquinium, a Tuscan city not far from Rome about the year 50 B.C. Fulvius’ snail garden had varied species of snails with separate sections for each species and he fed them on wine and cornmeal. Over the years the Romans developed ‘snaileries’ where a species of large snail, probably the Burgundy snail were kept in special farms, fattened on a diet of bran, flour, herbs, milk and wine dregs and bred for such characteristics as size, colour and fertility. When they were almost full-grown, they were transferred to jars with air-holes.
Here they stayed until they were fat enough not to be able to retreat into their shells and then they were fried and served with wine and a fish sauce condiment known as liquamen. This condiment was served with everything, and was a fermented fish sauce made from the gills, blood and the inside of the fish and was then left with salt to stew in the sun.
When Caesar invaded Gaul, his legionnaires introduced the gastropod to the Gauls, where it became a culinary delight and enjoyed as a dessert. In medieval France, monasteries and convents had a monopoly on snail farming. They had special snail parks where the snails were stock-piled in barrels and brought out during festivals and in times when food was scarce.
Snails first appeared in written instructions along with frogs in the anonymous Le Ménagier de Paris ca. 1394), an unsigned text that may have been written by Guy de Montigny, servant of the Duke of Berry.
By the sixteenth century snails were being served at banquets and becoming an expensive commodity. They would be cooked in a variety of ways, fried with oil or onion, cooked on skewers or simply boiled. Dining on snails was so fashionable that the Catholic Church classified them, along with frogs and turtles, as “fish” and they were therefore allowed to be eaten on Fridays, Lent and other meatless days without incurring the wrath of the church.
The next major commentary on snails appeared in “Noteworthy Treatise Concerning the Properties of Turtles, Snails, Frogs and Artichokes” by Estienne Laiguer, a small booklet published in 1530. The author criticised four foods that he felt were all equally bizarre but popular with his contemporaries. Of the snail he wrote “I know snails are ugly, but not so hideous as turtles, nor so vile, and nothing like as poisonous; I also know that the ancients ate them, but I can’t accept people’s eating them daily, since other foods are more nourishing and of better substance.”
After 1560 snails went into a decline, culminating in a virtual banishment from refined tables in France for around 250 years. If a cookery book gave a recipe for snails, it would be with an apology for introducing such a distasteful food-stuff. The 17th century French writer Nicolas de Bonnefons, who was also a valet at the court of Louis XIV, for instance was “astonished that the odd tastes of man had led him as far as this depraved dish in order to satisfy the extravagance of gluttony.”
After the Napoleonic wars, snails found favour again after Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838) asked the renowned French chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) to prepare some for the dinner which he gave for the Czar of Russia. (Byline: He employed Carême, one of the first celebrity chefs known as the “chef of kings and king of chefs”, and was said to have spent an hour every day with him and actively encouraged Carême in the development of a new refined food style using herbs and fresh vegetable, simplified sauces with few ingredients. Carême’s impact on culinary matters ranged from trivial to theoretical. He is credited with creating the standard chef’s hat, the toque.)
Meanwhile French wine merchants who went to eastern France each year on buying trips had to stay at the local inns where they were frequently served snails that had been gathered from the surrounding vineyards. The mollusc meal was commented upon in a complimentary manner by the merchants when they returned to their homes in Paris. Enough interest was gradually aroused to the point where one of the coaches that travelled between Auxerre and Paris was hired to bring the first baskets of snails to the markets of the French capitol.
The comeback sped up in the middle of the 19th century with the advent of the rail road meaning snails were not transported at snail pace any longer. Now they could be transported greater distances by train while still fresh. In this way new markets were developed not only in France but also in Italy and Spain. Their return was sealed by the spread of brasserie cafés to Paris by refugees who came from Alsace-Lorraine after the 1870 war and who incorporated the molluscs onto the menus and achieved so complete a reinstatement of the snail that it has stayed in place ever since.
Today, the global commercialized production is estimated around 450,000-500,000 tons. Just 13-15% of this production comes from snail farms; the rest is supplied through conventional snail harvesting. 29.5% of the international snail production refers to fresh snails, 47% to frozen snails, and 23.5% to canned snails.
Preparing Snails for Consumption
Snail production is a labour intensive process. Once harvested, snails must be starved so that they excrete mucus then refrigerated until they fall into hibernation. They are then purged, cleaned, scalded, pulled out of their shells and eviscerated.
Shipped frozen to one of a dozen processors in France, they are then cooked for several hours in an aromatic broth and reinserted into a clean shell, often filled with garlic-herb butter, ready to be sold to restaurants or retailers.
The most popular snails for eating are Helix aspersa and Helix pomatia.
The Helix aspersa is a gastropod mollusk. It is also known with the common name of “European Brown Garden Snail”, but its scientific name has alternative versions. Some scientist name this snail as Cornu aspersum, Cantareus aspersus or Cryptomphalus aspersus. This variety is called the “petit-gris” in French. When a snail is old enough, a lip is formed at the edge of the shell aperture. It can live for 4 to 5 years, but can be harvested when they are 7 to 8 months old. Their flesh has a mild taste.
Like other gastropod mollusks, the Helix aspersa is hermaphrodite; this means that it has both male and female organs. However, mating is required for fertilization, even tough self-fertilization is possible for this species.
The mating process is complex and interesting. After some pairing and courtship, this species start the mating process that can last from four to twelve hours and usually includes the exchange of a love dart, a kind of calcareous arrow with a purpose still unclear.
During the mating process they fertilize each other and they both will lay around 80 eggs 3 to 6 days after the mating occurs. To deliver her eggs the female snail will create a nest digging a hole in the soil with its foot. The nest will be 1 to 1.5 inches deep where the eggs will be delivered.
Gardens snails are able to deliver up to six batches of eggs in a single year. Each newborn will take one to two years to mature.
The Helix pomatia is also known as the Roman snail, Burgundy snail or Apple snail and in French is known either as the “Très Gros” or “Escargot de Bourgogne”. It doesn’t start reproducing until it’s 3 to 4 years old, and grows to be about 4 cm big. The snail should aged around 3 to 4 years old before harvesting.
These snails feed on a variety of plants, vegetables, flowers and leaves. However, they need to consume a considerable amount of calcium to preserve their shells as hard as possible and when they are not able to get it from their food, they will feed on some other materials which contain calcium, even soil or rocks. Their shell is a dull, mottled yellowish brown, and their flesh has a rich taste.