I have been writing a blog about the Poitou-Charentes region of France for about two years now and have not posted anything on the ‘s’ word or even escargot. Actually they have been briefly mentioned in a couple of restaurant reviews because I do like to eat them.
Don’t they look delicious? I will tell you how to prepare them later in this post. For now let’s deal with what types there are. The one you get in the supermarket is known as the Roman snail (Helix pomatia) and you are less likely to come across these in the wild. I have never found them in Poitou-Charentes, except of course in Intermarche. I once had a holiday in the Swiss Jura mountains and found loads of them. They do need alkaline conditions where there is plenty of chalk or limestone as they need plenty of this for their shells. There is a snail farm in Vienne and they can be found at farmer’s markets selling their produce. They also have open days when you can arrange a visit. http://lescargouille.e-monsite.com/ is their website.
The ones you are most likely to find are the garden snail (Helix aspersa) and there are normally plenty of these about. They are most noticeable after a good shower of rain, particularly if it comes after a long dry spell. This is when you see old boys searching in the hedgerows to collect up enough for a meal.
Then there are the banded snails which are quite attractive but generally regarded as too small to eat. However they are the same size as a periwinkle and you get them on a Plateau de Fruits de Mer so why not? There are two species of banded snails and it’s all about the colour of the edge or lip of their shell so we have white-lipped known as Cepaea hortensis and there are brown-lipped which is Cepaea nemoralis. To make identification even more confusing the number of bands varies quite a lot. Sometimes there are no bands so the snail is just a yellow colour, there are ones with lots of narrow bands making them look almost zebra like and in others the bands are very wide so that they look like brown snails with yellow stripes
In Spain I have eaten snails which they call Caracoles which are like a slightly flattened version of the garden snail. It is called Otala punctata and is prepared in a typical dish in South Spain, “cabrillas”, which is cooked in spicy tomato sauce The Spanish seem particularly good at incorporating snails into various recipes, whereas in France it is normally the straight forward garlic butter Escargot bourguignonne that is on offer.
There are hundreds of different snails, many of which are quite small and insignificant. I have lots of small brown snails on an old garden wall in England and whilst I expect you could eat them they are so small it would not be a worthwhile exercise.
Now how to cook them. The first job is to purge them or clean them. When you eat snails you eat everything, except the shell of course so you will be eating it’s guts and in guts you get pooh. Most snails feed on rotting vegetation or at best fresh vegetation so their pooh will not be that great. so it needs getting rid of. The way to do this is to keep your snails for a few days with no food so they pooh out all that is inside them. Alternatively you could feed them something which you would not mind eating i.e. flour so you give your snails a little flour, keep an eye on the colour of their pooh and when it turns white you know that they have got rid of all the rotting vegetation pooh and are now just full of flour. I have heard of people mixing a few dried herbs with the flour so that inside the snail you get a tasty herby flavour. This process will normally take 3-4 days. There are lots of variations on this theme but basically you have got to get the s**t out of them.
Now you cook them. Boil some water and in they go, bring it back to the boil, leave them for about three minutes and they are done. Now remove them from the shells and cook them in court bouillon. This is to give them a bit more flavour but it is not that important. If you wish to you can put them in fresh court-bouillon and heat up progressively to simmer for about 60 to 90 minutes depending on the size of the individual escargot.
Escargot flesh is then ready to be used. and here are a couple of recipes.
The traditional “Escargots à la bourguignonne”
You need garlic butter which is 1 kilogram of butter 25 grams of salt 5 grams of black pepper 150 grams of garlic 35 grams of shallots or scallions 90 grams of parsley.
Garlic, shallot and parsley are chopped very fine. The whole is well mixed.
In each empty shell, place a little of this butter. Then push a cooked escargot into the shell. Fill the remaining space in the shell completely and smoothly with butter. Usually 5 grams are used per shell (a tea-spoon). Put in the oven at 200 °C or 390 °F for just enough time as is needed to melt the butter. Serve immediately in special plates with holes. (Snails are picked with a special little fork).
Brochettes (skewers) of Escargots
Make up a herb and breadcrumb mix to coat the snails with. This is normally something like parsley, garlic, shallots and breadcrumbs with a bit of salt and pepper all mixed with a little olive oil.
Now put about 10 snails on a skewer and roll in the oily breadcrumb and herb mix- try to get a good coating. Then fry them or barbecue them until hot and golden brown. Serve with a cheap, cold, dry white wine. Champion! If any guests are squeamish do not tell them it’s snails – they will never guess and will really enjoy them.