Quite honestly, the idea of removing a slimy little chap from its shell and popping it into my mouth doesn’t attract me in the least – even if it is cooked in butter and wine with garlic and parsley. However, what I would fancy is immaterial.
As most of us will have noticed, les Français aiment bien les escargots (the French love snails) but in fact, snails are also very popular in other countries. In Spain, Italy, Greece and UK, the tradition of eating snails goes back a long way. In Asia they put them in the soup and in Africa, they enjoy giant snails. I wondered how far into the past this culinary tradition might go. I prefer to research with books whenever I can, so I dived into my Larousse Gastronomique – Encyclopaedia of Food, Wine and Cooking (1965 edition) to check out what they had to say – even if it is a little dated!
We know that the snail, or land gastopod mollusc, was a food highly-prized by the Romans and snail shells have been found on several archaeological sites around the Mediterranean, so it’s thought that their consumption probably dates as far back as prehistoric times.
There are several species. Perhaps the best known are the helix pomatia, helix aspersa (petit gris) and helix lucorum. In France, the edible snail is usually known as l’escargot. In Occitan as escagaròl in Catalan as cargol. The Spanish and Portuguese know them as caracols. According to my Larousse, the most popular variety in France is the vineyard snail, followed by the petit gris.
To be made fit for consumption, they need to be purged. This may be achieved by starving them for some time to make sure that any plant matter they’ve been feeding on that may be poisonous to humans, has been eliminated. To my mind, starving them seems like adding insult to injury. I prefer this idea: feeding them human-friendly vegetarian food for a week prior to slaughter. The Spanish purge by feeding them on flour for three days – to fatten them up too?
In France, there are at least two hundred snail farms preparing and tinning snails to be sold in specialist shops and many supermarkets. Growing them as a human food is known as heliculture. For those of us who would like to eat our garden snails rather than poisoning them, there’s no problem. We just have to make sure we prepare them correctly and safely. For even more info see this site. Some say it’s best to eat snails in hibernation, i.e. those that have sealed themselves in their shells.
Apart from enjoying the taste, the French eat snails for nutritional reasons – they contain calcium, Vitamin C and magnesium and there are other ways of preparing them apart from the usual wine, butter, garlic and parsley method. They can be eaten in casseroles, with butter, egg yoke and lemon juice and with a variety of white wines – white Chablis is a favourite.
Besides providing food for some, snails are good for your skin, enjoy (?) racing, sell stuff, provide interesting canvases and love a bit of the other. See for yourself:
• fancy a face massage? Try the snail method
• a fun sport to watch, if you have the time?
• advertising agencies and their clients will sometimes stop at nothing – I found this rather sickening
• what will they vandalise next?
• not this – the lovers! (see pic)
• this young lady has made a profession out of snails
So, what do we do with the snails that hang around our veg patch and the courtyard? Pick them off whatever they’re clinging onto and chuck them as far as we can into the fields. On occasion, if we can’t find them and are desperate, we resort to using an organic snail killer, but then I, at least, am reminded of our acts of murder by the shells bubbling with the froth of a dead creature. Not wonderful.
ps I’ve often marvelled at the beauty of snail shells. There are enough different colours and patterns to keep an ardent conchologist endlessly intrigued and delighted. Here is a fascinating article on the subject.