Snails have long been regarded as a delicacy on the continental food plate, but the process of preparing them is a laborious one.
Sitting by a table in a refined French restaurant, glancing warily down at a plate of snails, your first thought is unlikely to centre on how your meal was composed. To food sophisticates, escargot – French for ‘snail’ – remains a luxurious appetiser served with delicious garlic and butter. For many tourists, however, the prospect of slurping slimy snails from shells is hard to envisage.
While that attitude is understandable, it would be shrugged at in several quarters of Europe. Despite being the ambassador of the French gastronomy, snails are also popular around the Mediterranean. The Spanish use small snails in spicy sauces and soups; the bigger ones are put in paella-style rice dishes. In the summer, the Portuguese dish them up in cheap snack houses and taverns – often in an aromatic stew of white wine, garlic and oregano. They are beloved in Sicily and Greece too, particularly on the island of Crete. Some Greek supermarkets even display them live in vegetable sections.
There are more than 100 types of edible snails. The sizes vary from half a centimetre to the very biggest – the giant African snails – which can grow as long as 30 centimetres. Yet two types of snail are regarding as classics: one is called Petit-Gris – French for ‘Little Grey’ – and is found around Europe; the other is Escargot de Bourgogne and is sourced from the Burgundy region in France. (The snails’ respective scientific names are Helix Aspersa and Helix Pomatia). The snails are healthy too: they are estimated to contain 15 per cent protein, 2.4 per cent fat and 80 per cent water.
To meet market demands, snail farming – know as ‘heliculture’ – has become widespread and commercialised over the past decades, partly because the stock of wild snails has decreased. But the history of snail eating does not start there. Archaeological evidence suggests people enjoyed snails already in pre-historic times, as indicated by excavations where shells were found next to human skulls. Heliculture was later refined – or possibly invented – by the Romans, who saw snails as luxurious even then. They would eat them at feasts, festivals, Lent and Carnival. The writings of Pliny the Elder, the Roman writer and naturalist, describe a farmer called Fulvius Hirpinus, who in his garden fatted up a variety of snail species – the first documented instance of snail breeding. The snails’ diet? Wine and cornmeal.
The European heliculture has continued since then, alongside a shared notion that snail dishes are among the classiest dishes around. Perhaps that stems from the work required to prepare them. Making snails edible takes nearly a week of careful feeding and preparation. Some chefs are known to have failed already before they had begun; the mistake coming down to leaving a box of snails unguarded in the kitchen, unaware that they were able to escape. As if the preparation period wasn’t extensive enough, the first days were spent picking snails off the walls.
The reason snails must be carefully observed and treated relates to what they eat. A snail may be edible, yet that helps little if what it has eaten before consumption isn’t. The danger is particularly obvious with wild snails. At best it can make them taste unpleasant. At worst it can make them poisonous.
The most common practice is to watch the snails’ diet for five to six days. It is a time-consuming and laborious process, which is why farms are so widespread. To spare individuals the work, supermarkets offer packs of prepared snails. Some already come with garlic and butter taste. They can be bought fresh, chilled, canned or frozen. Some still go through the task of preparing snails on their own, which, depending on how it is done, may result in better taste. However, if it’s fast food you want, you better look elsewhere.
Photos: Dj Srki, gorillaimages, jean schweitzer [all via Shutterstock.com]