For some reason, today is designated as National Escargot Day In the United States. It’s one of hundreds of useless and trivial “special” food days accorded national status by the Congress. I assume it all has to do with marketing. Why cooked snails should get a special day is beyond me. But the date gives me the opportunity to talk about food preferences and prejudices, so I’ll accept the celebration this once.
Strictly speaking, the word “escargot” in English applies to cooked snails only. Raw snails are snails. Even calling cooked snails, “escargot,” strikes me as pretentious or affected. I can understand referring to a French dish, such as escargots à la Bourguignonne, using the French word, but I don’t see why cooked snails in general can’t simply be “snails.” That’s the term I’ll use.
Not all species of land snail are edible, and many are too small to make it worthwhile to prepare and cook them. Even among the edible species, the palatability of the flesh varies from species to species. In France, the species Helix pomatia is most often eaten. The “petit-gris” Cornu aspersa is also eaten, as is Helix lucorum. Several additional species, such as Elona quimperiana, are popular in Europe.
Burnt snail shells have been found in several archaeological excavations, indicating that snails have been eaten since prehistoric times. In addition, a number of archaeological sites around the Mediterranean have been excavated yielding physical evidence of the culinary use of several species of snails. The Romans in particular are known to have considered snails a delicacy, as noted in the writings of Pliny. The edible species Otala lactea has been recovered from the Roman-era city Volubilis in present-day Morocco. Romans also practiced snail farming, or heliciculture. The method was described by Fulvius Lippinus (49 BCE) and mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro (Terrence) in De Re rustica (On Rural Things)III, 12. The snails were fattened for human consumption using corn flour and aromatic herbs. People usually raised snails in pens near the house, and these pens were called “cochlea”.
“Wall fish” were also often eaten in Britain, but were never as popular as on the continent. People sometimes ate snails during Lent, and in a few places, they consumed large quantities of snails at Carnival, as a foretaste of Lent.
U.S. imports of snails were worth more than $4.5 million in 1995 and came from 24 countries. This includes preserved or prepared snails and snails that are live, fresh, chilled, or frozen. Major exporters to the U.S. are France, Indonesia, Greece and China. So people do eat snails in the U.S., but in my experience a great many turn their noses up at them as hideously disgusting as food. Here we run up against food prejudice. Lots of people look at snails much as they do oysters, insects, and even offal (especially tripe), making the gargantuanly ethnocentric assumption that these things are inherently distasteful, and, therefore, anyone who eats them is weird. I’ve heard people say things like, “it was a very brave person who ate the first oyster.” How stupid can you be? Foragers (hunters and gatherers) eat whatever is edible. It’s not that they are stuck for enough to eat, it’s that their overall diet is much broader than that of sedentary peoples.
I’m not going to say that I find every food available in the world completely delectable. I’ve struggled a little sometimes with brains on toast. That’s because of the texture, not the idea. There’s plenty of slimy foods in Asia that don’t appeal to me even though the ingredients are straightforward. I just have a thing about certain textures. I can eat oysters all day because their texture does not bother me. My very narrow distaste may come from the fact that my mum used to make junket (a rennet custard) when I was a little boy, and I didn’t like it. I did eat it though. When my son was little we had a house rule – you cannot refuse a dish until you have tasted it. Fortunately, in that regard he was quite strange enough. He still won’t eat things made with eggs (including cake), or mushrooms, but finds duck tongue and pig stomach perfectly tasty.
In French culture, snails for cooking are typically purged (voided of unpleasant intestinal matter), killed, removed from their shells, and cooked (usually with garlic butter, chicken soup or wine), and then placed back into the shells with the butter and sauce for serving. Additional ingredients may be added, such as garlic, thyme, parsley and pine nuts. Special snail tongs (for holding the shell) and snail forks (for extracting the meat) are also normally provided, and the snails are served on indented metal trays with places for six or 12 snails. In Maltese cuisine, snails of the petit gris variety are simmered in red wine or ale with mint, basil and marjoram. The snails are cooked, and served in their shells.
Like most molluscs, escargots are high in protein and low in fat content (if cooked without butter). Snails are estimated to contain around 15% protein, 2.4% fat and about 80% water, although this depends on the method of preservation. I expect that many readers will have trouble finding fresh snails in the market. Even buying them canned can be difficult in some places. I’m a little spoiled in that in Argentina, China, and (now) Italy, I have no problems. Canned work fine, and you don’t absolutely need the shells either (they’re mostly decorative). Here’s two-fer.
Escargots à la Bourguignonne
1 clove garlic
4 oz unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp finely minced shallot
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp dry white wine
12 to 16 snails
kosher salt (for stabilizing snail shells)
12 to 16 sterilized snail shells
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Mince and mash the garlic to a paste with a small amount of table salt. Beat together the butter, shallot, garlic paste, parsley, and pepper to taste in a small bowl. You can use a hand electric mixer or immersion blender if you are lazy. Just be sure that the ingredients are combined thoroughly. Then beat in the wine to combine.
Divide up half the butter mix between the shells, put one shell in each shell, then top up with the remaining butter mix. Spread ample kosher salt in a shallow baking dish and nest the shells in it with the open sides up.
Bake the snails until the butter is sizzling. This should only take about 5 minutes. Serve immediately with crusty bread – 4 to 6 per person as an appetizer.
Snails and Mushrooms
6 fl oz crème fraîche
8 oz black mushrooms
1 tbsp minced shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (7-oz) can snails (18 to 24 snails), rinsed and drained
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp finely chopped chives
1 tsp finely chopped tarragon
1 tbsp unsalted butter
salt and pepper
Simmer the crème fraîche with the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste in a heavy medium saucepan, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender – about 10 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low, add the snails, herbs, and butter, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the snails are heated through – 1 to 2 minutes. Serve in small bowls.