Sunday, 19 July 2009

Snails – Escargots

Love them or hate them (I love them) snails are a delicacy in French cuisine, where they are called escargots. Although France is the country most associated with snails on the menu they are actually a legacy from Roman times. The Romans loved them and as their Empire spread across Europe the distribution of snails and snail recipes spread to the furthest regions of Europe and the Mediterranean. Snails shells often are found in ancient kitchen waste heaps that are excavated around former Roman settlements. They imported choice varieties and set aside certain places for fattening the snails, providing them with a diet of bran, flour, and herbs, with a mixture of wine dregs. Pliny tells us that Fulvinus Hirpinus was the first to engage in snail-farming at Tarquinium about the year 50 B.C. That said it's thought that Europe's appreciation of the snail may pre date the Romans to Celtic times. Greeks, Phoenicians and other pre-Roman cultures in the Mediterranean were eating them long ago.

Snails are also eaten today in other European countries: traditional Spanish cuisine uses snails caracoles in several spicy sauces, soups and paella. In Greece, snails are especially popular in the island of Crete, but are also eaten in many parts of the country and can even be found in supermarkets, sometimes placed alive near partly refrigerated vegetables. In this regard, snails are one of the few live organisms sold at supermarkets as food. They are eaten either boiled with vinegar added, or sometimes cooked alive in a casserole with tomato, potatoes and squashes. In Sicily, snails (or babbaluci as they are commonly called in Sicilian) are a very popular dish as well. They are usually boiled with salt first, then served with tomato sauce or bare with oil, garlic and parsley. Snails are similarly appreciated in other Italian regions, such as Sardinia. Snails bebbux are a dish on the Mediterranean island of Malta, generally prepared and served in the Sicilian manner. In south western Germany there is a regional speciality of soup with snails and herbs, called Black Forest Snail Chowder Badener Schneckensuepple.

Although there is not usually considered to be a tradition of snail eating in Britain, common garden snails Helix aspersa were eaten in the Southwick area of Sunderland in the North East of England. They were collected from quarries and along the stone walls of railway embankments during the winter when the snails were hibernating and had voided the contents of their guts. It is thought that this tradition was introduced in the 19th Century by French immigrant glass workers. "Snail suppers" were a feature of local pubs and Southwick working men were collecting and eating snails as late as the 1970s, though the tradition may now have died out.

In the Middle Ages snails had the crucial advantage to be neither fish nor meat, so they could be eaten during the time of Lent. Consequently most monasteries had a snail garden, where the monks could keep the tasty snails, to eat them with a hump of beer. At that time, though, the monks were not the only people to eat snails. Snails were food for the poor. Snails were free, they could be picked in nature, and they were (and are today) very nutritious.

Subsequently a snail trade developed and snail farmers competed to make their snails fatter, tastier and better than all others. The idea of feeding snails with a diet of special herbs that gave them an especially fine taste arose in these times. There was also a place in that time's medicine for snails. It was well known, that a cure against cough and other breast problems could be produced from snails, as well as a remedy against consumption.

The success of Northern European snail merchants speaks volumes: on the waterway the snails were transported by special transport boats to Vienna. There the snails were sold on the markets. There was a roaring trade with in Vienna until well into the 18th century. Later the main target of snail trade moved towards Paris, where snails could be transported overland. Even in 1908 the village of Guttenstein alone sold 4 millions of snails to Paris. Snails even accompanied Napoleon's armies on their campaigns as army rations!

In 19th century France there were snail shell collectors Marchands de coquilles d'escargots who rummaged through fine restaurants' rubbish to collect used snail hells. They resold them to cheaper restaurants. The shells were not cleaned so that the remaining butter sauce would flavour the cheap grease used in the second restaurant and they could be sold to the hoi polloi as escargots au beurre.

You may be relieved to know that before preparing snails to eat, the snails are fasted for three days with only water available. After three days of fasting, the snails are fed flour and water for at least a week. This process is thought to cleanse the snails.

No comments: