A French Tradition: The Magic of Escargots

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A French Tradition: The Magic of Escargots

A Poster in Burgundy:
Please don’t molest our snails. We eat them.

What comes to mind when you think of snails? Slimy? Yes, they are mucus-generating mollusks. Slow? Oui. The only animals slower are coral and sloths. Pests that nibble tiny holes in garden lettuce and leave a trail of who knows what? Certainly a common complaint.

Can this creature be transformed into a gourmet delicacy? Credit © Craig Carlson

But if you’re French, a lover of traditional French food, or, even better, a Burgundian at heart, you’re more likely to think of that gourmet delicacy—escargots. France is the proud consumer of nearly 60,000 tons of snails a year.

National Escargot Day (May 24) slipped by this year with less fanfare because of the more challenging issues of the time. But have no fear. We can honor escargots any time.

In fact, escargots have been celebrated for thousands of years. Evidence of shells has been found in prehistoric sites, and snails have been recorded as an elite privilege in Greek and Roman times (with a recipe found in the oldest surviving Roman cookbook from the 1st century).

A typical kitchen in Burgundy during snail season. Credit © Françoise Deberdt-Meunier

Let Them Eat Snails

I was reminded of the agony and ecstasy of escargots in a chapter of Craig Carlson’s new book Let Them Eat Pancakes. (Carlson is the owner of two “Breakfast in America” restaurants in Paris.)

He describes a snail experience with his belle maman (mother-in-law) a Burgundy native, that takes place during the escargot hunting season.

Yes, there is a snail hunting season in Burgundy—from July 1 through March 31. If you find Burgundy snails (also known as Helix Pomatia) in their usual haunts during that time—vineyards, gardens, and forests—you can harvest them for your personal consumption as long as they are larger than 3 cm.

In Burgundy, you can only harvest snails larger than 3 cm. Some of these will have to go. Credit © Françoise Deberdt-Meunier

This particular day in Carlson’s book also happened to be snail mating season, so there were hundreds of escargots for the taking.

The Transformation

After the harvest, the transformation of slimy snail into savory escargot is not an easy process—for the preparer or for the snail.

The snail is already a somewhat disadvantaged being. Not only is it slow (snails are so easy to catch that cavemen didn’t know whether to assign “hunters” or “gatherers” to the project), but it is also hard of hearing and mostly blind. Not an ideal life. Then, if caught for an escargot party, it is tortured in stages. (Spoiler alert: if you’re sensitive to animal torture, stop reading here.)

Carlson’s belle maman during snail hunting season. Credit © Craig Carlson

The snails are fattened first. After that, their systems must be cleansed. They go on a week- long fast, with occasional roughage to cleanse their innards. After that, they are rinsed and placed in salt so that they drool. They are rinsed again and given the final death knell—a tumble into boiling water. (Tip: Don’t try this process at home unless you know what you’re doing, as snails can carry dangerous parasites.)

For more details of this process, you’re invited to read Carlson’s book (including some international intrigue as the belle maman’s snails are smuggled into the U.S.), but, suffice it to say, that after the preparation steps, the mushy mollusks are ready for the cooking part of the process.

Carlson and his belle maman show you how in their latest video revealing the secrets of escargot cooking.

A long process of preparation. Credit © Meredith Mullins

An Easier Way

If this complex process of hunting and preparation is too much, there is an easier way. Now, there are hundreds of snail farms in France and even more in other countries around the world (from the U.S. to Ukraine). These snails make it to market and to our favorite French restaurants around the world.

Of course, the easiest way to enjoy snails is to have them served to you in a traditional French restaurant, along with other French favorites like bone marrow and frogs legs.

Snails come in their own decorative container. Credit © Françoise Deberdt-Meunier

A Tantalizing Trend Toward Escargots

Aside from the torture issue, what’s not to like about escargots? They come with their own container—an artistically decorated shell.

They are nutritious—high in protein, rich in magnesium and calcium, and low in fat (although watch out for the butter in most of the cooking processes).

You know you’re in trouble when all that’s left after eating are little pools of garlic butter. Credit © Meredith Mullins

They are fun to excavate out of their hiding place deep within the shell with a snail fork or toothpick. And who doesn’t look sophisticated with snail tongs in hand (although you must practice to prevent that embarrassing moment of launching a snail shell across the room).

The tools of the trade. Credit © Meredith Mullins

And, they’re delicious.

The best part—reliving the finer gourmet elements—butter, garlic, and herbs—as you mask up after dinner and breathe in on your way home.

Try some of the restaurants listed below and be sure to let us know where you have had great escargots.

Restaurants:

The most legendary escargot restaurant is L’Escargot at 38 rue Montorgueil—featuring the delicacy since 1832 in a stunning old-world setting and including additional escargot preparations such as curry, truffle, foie gras, and Roquefort.

Step into the old world of French bistros at L’Escargot. Credit © Meredith Mullins

Our friend and food critic extraordinaire, Alec Lobrano, recommends Alain Ducasse’s Allard and Jean-Francois Piege’s La Poule au Pot,  each with its own creative escargot take on garlic and herbs.

Le Poule au Pot near Les Halles. Credit © Meredith Mullins

Other options include Chez Fernand Christine, Le Comptoir, Chez André, Bouillon Chartier (two locations), Le Petit Châtelet, Robert and Louise, Le Grand Colbert (yes, they have more than just Diane Keaton’s famous chicken), La Fontaine de Mars . . . and many more.

Le Petit Châtelet offers a delicious snail and mushroom creation with a pastry crust No tongs needed. Credit © Meredith Mullins

Craig Carlson’s Let Them Eat Pancakes can be found at English language bookstores in Paris or on Amazon through this link. You’re invited to a virtual reading on September 9 with Shakespeare and Company in New York and a physical event, if you’re in Paris, at the Abbey Bookstore on September 18 at 18h30.

Read the Bonjour Paris book review here.

 

Lead photo credit : Dreaming of escargots. Credit © Meredith Mullins

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Meredith Mullins is an internationally exhibited fine art photographer and instructor based in Paris. Her work is held in private and museum collections in Europe and the U.S. and can be seen at www.meredithmullins.artspan.com or in her award-winning book "In A Paris Moment." She is a writer for OIC Moments and other travel and education publications.

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Comments

  • Parisbreakfast
    2020-09-11 11:50:11
    Parisbreakfast
    Excellent! I love escargot. Picard’s frozen snails are not bad at all if you’re desperate. Just10 minutes in the oven et coila. I’ve come to love the much bigger bulots/sea snails (also known as welks) you can buy bien cuit in the marchés. No butter required and great French fast food.

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  • Jacqueline
    2020-09-11 03:29:22
    Jacqueline
    Please don’t forget the amazing Maison de l’escargot for snails to make at home

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  • David
    2020-09-10 07:52:43
    David
    Great article! Thank you for presenting it here with suggestions on where to find the best escargot. (I must admit that my recent experiences with escargot in Paris were not great - despite dining at some highly-rated restaurants. The snails have tasted muddy and were much too soft [not a good sign]). I hope upon my return to Paris (post-pandemic), I will have better luck! Thank you also for introducing readers to the author and proprietor of Paris's "Breakfast in America" diners!

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  • Sandra Althorpe-Read
    2020-09-10 07:22:08
    Sandra Althorpe-Read
    Sorry but I now feel sick.How can people eat these creatures.

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  • Vivian Jacobs-Geremia
    2020-09-10 05:54:20
    Vivian Jacobs-Geremia
    So intéressant Oui please keep our culture and it’s intricacies coming! Thank you!

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  • Suki Tutthill
    2020-09-09 05:49:47
    Suki Tutthill
    As usual Meredith, loved your article and especially the video of our friend Craig and his Belle-Maman. I hope he does more. I'll check his FB page and see if I can see it and comment. Tommy and I visited Merritt's good friend Naima who used to manage the Peace and Love Youth Hotel near Stalingrad Station and took us to an amazing restaurant where we sampled several escargot dishes. So yummy and amazing. That was many years ago. Just saw on news this morning opening of the Notre Dame undergrand tour. Looks so interesting. Can you write about that? Keep up the good work, enjoying your postings about Paris during the Pandemic.

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