Snails, frog’s legs, onions and garlic…I don’t think you could ever make the mistake of linking the above with any other country than France. Yet French cuisine is revered the world over so they must be on to something. Why have the French become known as frogs? Who first coined that phrase? But then we British are described as roast beef! Do we smell of gravy? Do we taste of beef? I think not. Xenophobia has for some strange reason decided to look to the food that we consume to mastermind such witty pet names for one another. Frog’s legs or “la cuisse de grenuille” has been a firm favorite of mine since the age of five. My parents would take my brother and I down to a wonderful restaurant in the valley below our chalet in Switzerland called La Catogne. The dish I would always have would be frog’s legs coated in garlic, smothered in butter and lemon with handfuls of parsley mixed in. I couldn’t get enough! But anyway this is meant to be about snails.
The common garden snail (Helix aspersa) or as the French call them; le petit gris, is viewed by many as a garden pest and rightly so, the little buggers had a proper go at some of my lettuces but seemed a lot more keen on the pak choi, which they really hammered. Over the channel, it’s a different story snail farms are rife and the Frenchies consume a whopping 30,000 tons of snails a year! You would be hard pressed to find them for sale in this country, but there are about 3 snail farms practicing the art of Heliciculture. One in South Devon, the king William pub in Yorkshire and l’escargot anglais in Herefordshire.
Snails and Romans were particularly fond of each other and with spread of the Roman empire we saw the spread of snails as food. The snail’s sex life is also rather interesting. All snails are male until they mate, snails have a sort of penis just below the eye and two snails will come together and join their wedding tackle for up to 10 hours of seminal fluid exchange, by the end of which one will be inseminated and lay up to a thousand eggs. These are also known as snail caviar and seen by many as a delicacy in its own right.
So it was with a little knowledge of these slow moving creatures and some intense anger at finding them decimating my veggies that I set about venturing into the garden with a torch under the cover of darkness to procure myself some Escargot. After about a week I had about 14 and revenge was immanent.
Once you have a batch of snails they need to go into rehab. Sort of. They need to be purged of all unpleasant goods that may be in their gut. To do this you must feed them on a one-item diet. Lettuce, carrot shavings or cabbage leaves are fine and they will need to be purged for 3-5 days. Best to store them in a well-ventilated plastic container with a lid. After this you must starve them for 48 hours, which reduces the amount of slime although this is not necessary.
The classic French way is probably the simplest method of cooking snails. The method I went for was to boil up some well-salted vegetable stock and pop in all the snails and let them simmer for 10 minutes. Once drained and cooled the next stage is to remove them from their shells, this is actually, in the same way as skinning an eel, quite a gleeful experience. It is as they say all in the wrist; get yourself a skewer and dig it into the snail and twist slowly out until you get a nice morsel of snail meat.
To finish them, chop up a couple of cloves of garlic, half a shallot and some parsley and chuck them in a pan along some butter and a splash of white wine and gently fry them for a few minutes. To serve, simply place on a few fresh salad leaves with a little seasoning. Il sont Magnifiques!
If you have a garden or know someone with one then you are more than likely to get your hands on some snails. If you are a keen gardener then I can think of no better way to deal with a snail problem. I like to think of eating snails as just another product of my garden that can be harvested at regular intervals. If you have never tried snails, you don’t have a leg to stand on or to put in context a shell to hide in…if the French can manage 30,000 tons I’m sure you can manage at least a few.