Saturday, April 21, 2012

Escargot, Dumas and the Romans

Escargot is the French word for snails and when discussed in culinary terms refers to cooked land snails, usually served as an appetizer.  Now I know some of you may turn up your nose at snails, but if you just try these I know you will enjoy them.

Snails have been eaten since prehistoric times as is evidenced at archaeological sites around the Mediterranean.  And while the name may now be French, the Romans are known to have considered escargot an elite food, as noted in the writings of Pliny.  The earliest recipes I found were the five listed in Alexandre Dumas’ Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine published in 1873.  He says "The only distinction gourmands make between snails concerns where they are picked.  Those found on grapevines are the most sought after and the best.  The Romans were so fond of them they built special enclosures in which the snails were fattened on wheat and old wine to make them more digestible." So while we think of them as being one of the most recognizable symbols of French cuisine, they are really not as ubiquitous as we imagine even in France. They are readily available in almost any food store in France, but they usually occupy only a small amount of shelf space. Paris bistros and brasseries will often list them on their menus as escargots de Bourgogne, which I have prepared and discuss below.
Roman Snail Tile - Aquileia Basilica
Remember, not all species of land snails are edible or desirable, so best to leave your selection to a skilled purveyor if you are using fresh.  The classic French preparation technique purges the snails digestive system (by feeding them quality foods) then removing them from their shells by cooking in hot water/broth. Thankfully today farm-raised snails are typically fed a diet of ground cereals making the purging process unnecessary. They are then cooked again by placing them back into the shells together with butter for serving. Additional ingredients may be added such as garlic, thyme, parsley and pine nuts. Special snail tongs (for holding the shell) and snail forks (for extracting the meat) are also normally used, and they are served on indented metal trays or special serving plates with places for 6 or 12 snails.

Most restaurants use canned snails for this dish and you can too.  Note however that most canned snails come without shells, and for a proper appetizer you'll probably want to purchase shells for the presentation which are usually available from the same company that cans the snails.  A quick search of Amazon does indeed locate the snails, shells, specialized dish and forks for this service.  Check your snail packaging carefully to determine if you need to purchase the shells separately.
Julian's Escargot Before Baking
As with most things, the canning process cooks the snails so your preparation can be brief and easy as they are ready for use right out of the can.  Simply drain the canning liquid and rinse them.  I like to make a compound butter of finely chopped herbs (usually parsley), shallots and minced garlic, along with some salt and pepper.  You can do this easily with your mixer or by hand.  I  stuff a little of the compound butter well up into the shell, then add the canned snail closing up the opening with more compound butter.  I typically do this well in advance of dinner, but on the same day, and then refrigerate them. 

Specialized snail dishes are ideal, but they can be served without this if you have dishes in which you can arrange the shells so they stay upright, as shown in the photo.  They are easy to pop into a hot oven for service at the table in under 5 minutes, heating them without letting the butter brown.  Be sure to provide some crusty bread for dipping of the sauce.

Ready to Eat!

1 comment:

  1. YOu know, snails were one of my earliest 'gourmet' trials. I was eating with my parents and horrified them by ordering them. The snails were fine, but the butter was insanely good. I used to have the whole set for making them including that weird clampy-grabby thing that held the shell while you dug into it for the snail meat. Who knows where they got to???
    WOnderful recipe that makes me want to make them again with lots of butter to soak up ... the best part.

    the new blogger won't let me leave a comment. I hear the new blogger won't let you leave comments unless you have your comments on a separate page.

    loved your snails

    hope you are well.