A short while ago, I came upon an article in New York magazine entitled, “The Slowest Food.” It was all about snails, or as the French say, escargot.
The point that the piece was making is that, for whatever reason, snails have suddenly become very popular. Perhaps, they state, it’s because they have become an “ICON of the SLOW FOOD movement.” Or maybe it’s the “obsession with adventurous eating among fashionable foodies.”
So I decided to drill down into my flirtation and affairs over the years with the rubbery little cornu aspersum…the snail.
Their origin as a food is presumed to be Italian, at around the time of the height of the Roman Empire. But in all my trips to Italy, I just don’t recall ever eating them (I don’t even know that I’d recognize the Italian word for snail). I do recall enjoying them on numerous, numerous occasions in France, however.
For some reason, over the centuries, they seemed to have migrated to France either deliberately or accidentally… and in a BIG WAY. Escargot farms are prolific there, especially in Burgundy.
The farming methods are unique. Newly hatched snails thrive on green leafy plants and grasses that grow between rows of tilted weathered boards to which they eventually “barnacle” themselves while they mature. At the time they are harvested, they are removed from their shells and “flash-boiled” to remove toxins and any other impurities. Next they’re cooked in vats of aromatic “court-bouillon” before being canned and ready for distribution. (Very, very few restaurants use snails fresh off the boards.)
By far, the world’s most popular (and many would argue, the most delicious) snail dish is ESCARGOT BOURGUIGNON (obviously created in Burgundy). The snails, put back into their shells, are tightly packed to the brim of the shell with high-fat butter, laced with loads of chopped fresh garlic, shallots and parsley. The resulting dish coming out of the oven is frothing in hot melted garlic butter anxiously awaiting a warm, crusty hunk of sopping bread. In my opinion, the hot butter-soaked sopping bread is equally as good as the snails themselves….maybe better. And I do not think that I am alone with that opinion.
This iconic French appetizer comes with a pesky little spring-loaded pair of tongs specially designed to grab and hold the shell in place while the snail is being carefully filched out with a tiny two-pronged fork. A word of caution: Once you have secured the shell, DO NOT squeeze the tongs again without thinking first. Due to the spring-loading, the result could be a butter-loaded snail shell missile flying across the table and on to a dining companion’s lap.
But adventuresome chefs around the world, not content with tradition, are experimenting with new and inventive interpretations of snail dishes – delicious iterations that Joanne and I have enjoyed immensely during our travels.
To name a few: Snails stuffed into tiny ceramic cups at LA COTE BASQUE in New York; DANIEL BOULUD’s snails soaked in Persillade butter (Italian parsley chives, almond flour and cayenne) served with potato croquettes to soak up the melted butter (I much prefer a warm baguette); VOL AU VENT, a larger pastry shell filled with goat cheese, mushrooms and other good stuff; escargot deep-fried or roasted in a whole onion; escargot soufflé at LE RECAMIER in Paris; snails with bresola, shallots, mushrooms and rich Bordelaise sauce atop creamy polenta at LE NOTRE in Paris; escargot incorporated into a salad with grilled lettuce, baby onions, mushrooms and pickled carrots at DINNER BY HESTON BLUMENTHAL in London; snails masquerading as LASAGNA; and again in London at SCOTT’S, where they’re prepared with monkfish cheeks and sinus-clearing garlic toast.
However, Joanne has NEVER HAD A SNAIL FACIAL.
Now, what I’ve been talking about are LAND SNAILS. BUT….
…there are also varieties of SEA SNAILS, of which we sampled more than our fair share while in Nice and Barcelona last summer.
Not all snails are edible, but those that are suitable for consumption include: “knobbed whelks” (kind of like baby conch shells); “lighting snails,” served in a heaping platter at our favorite restaurant in Barcelona, BOTAFUMERIO; and another breed of sea snails are “whelks,” which are a frequent guest on those impressive seafood towers in Parisian brasseries.
We enjoyed sea snails served warm with a garlicky butter dipping sauce, but most often they were served cold on crushed ice with homemade mayo – a welcome treat for us with the record-setting heat wave in Nice.
And then there are the tiny, and I mean TINY, but delicious PERIWINKLES, so small that you release them from their shells with a needle.
But…..ONLY PARISIANS WOULD THINK OF THIS…..
A somewhat dreary but nevertheless delightful little restaurant that is DEDICATED to the snail. The name? You guessed it: L’ESCARGOT. It’s located not far from Les Halles, on Rue Montorgueil. And while you’ll find steak frites and French onion soup on the menu, no one comes for that. They’re here for the snails – Escargot Bourguignon, of course, but also Truffle Butter Escargot and Foie Gras Escargot.
Get a half dozen for yourself or a dozen to share, or order 36 for the table. The good news: You can mix ‘em up. On our last visit, they were about one euro each – pretty darn good for Paris!
However, if you are not traveling to Paris anytime soon, there’s no need to despair. Help is at hand and nearby. Escargot Bourguignon is always on the menu at SALUT (and with warm, crusty sopping bread).