Art is the provocation for talking about enigma and the search for sense in human life. One can do that by telling a story or writing about a fresco by Giotto or studying how a snail climbs up a wall.— John Berger
…there’s this path along the Rhône, it picks up where the eastern quai ends, running out the spur of land that was one-time home (149 AD) to the Roman cirque/hippodrome. Max and I, and lately Maddie in her poussette, like to walk it of a morning along with a few early rising joggers and occasional trailing mist. Cobblestone gives way to macadam path, gives way to gravel, gives way to dirt and, finally, grass. Not that Arles is overly crowded or hectic, but alongside a river that flows through olive groves and salt marshes to the sea, to the sea…..it’s a bit easier to breathe.
The path is flanked for a stretch by a low stone wall, keeping thistles, ivy, rock roses, and wayward critters at bay. And Max’s passion of late is….escargot. Or in his tiny, excited voice, “Regarde, Papa….AY-car-goh!” And he proceeds to pluck any hapless snail who hasn’t made it off the wall by sunrise and gather them in grimy palmed collection. They are small, pea-sized spirals mostly, not yet appetizer class – as an elderly gentleman walking his dog past this morning amiably observed, “il n’y a pas beaucoup à manger” (“There’s not a lot there to eat”).
With each thrilling discovery – he literally squeals with delight as he spots and runs to one on the wall ahead “AY-car-goh!” – we sing a little nursery rhyme:
Porte sur son dos,
Aussitôt qu’il pleut,
Il est tout heureux,
Il sort sa tête.”
He doesn’t keep them. At the end of the path is a weedy escarpment, tumbling down to the water. He tosses them all into the morning breeze and brambles, waving, “Au revoir, ay-car-goh!”
He is very much a little boy.
We’ve been here about 4 years now, and escargot have pretty much infiltrated all aspects of our lives. Some days, after adventuring in various locales around town, when the haul has been good, we find Max’s pockets full of walnut-size hitchhikers which we release in our courtyard cum snail sanctuary – our next door neighbors (and their potted plants) probably hate us. But it is in some way comforting to see them trailing up the walls or across the window pane as I gaze out over after-dinner dishes. And sometimes those dishes contain empty escargot shells.
Snails are divisive as food. There is very little middle ground. You never hear someone say, “Yeah, they’re OK – I can take ‘em or leave ‘em.” In American cuisine they exist, though rarely make an appearance on menus, mostly seen as an ‘elitist’ choice, purview of the wealthy and hoity-toit, which is strange because they’re, well…..snails. There’s a definite attitude of “Can’t you see the Emperor is naked? And covered in slime?” But there is an (admitted) minority who believe that not only is the Emperor clothed, but resplendent in his robes of butter, garlic, and parsley.
In Europe, snails have been à la carte for over 30,000 years. There’s evidence of them being roasted in their shells over pine boughs on the Iberian Peninsula dating back to 29,000 B.C.E. (Early Upper Paleolithic). They still love them in Spain, and Greece, Italy, the Balkans, almost every Asian country, the fringes of Africa. South America doesn’t seem to have taken to them too much.
Annual global consumption of snails hovers around 450,000 tons, (or about the weight of 18 Statue of Liberties). Of that France claims the single biggest share at 60,000 tons (a meagre 6 Eiffel towers, or approximately 571 blue whales). Per capita champions, however, are the Greeks, followed by Spain – in 2016 the Athenians (and Greeks in general) topped out at 500 grams per person, or roughly 14 snails for every man, woman, and child in the country, while in Madrid they scarfed a more modest 10 per head.
It’s a 12 billion dollar a year industry, and growing. To raise beef, you need about 1 acre of pasturage per animal per annum; that same acre can generate up to 10 tons of snail meat (yes, you read that correctly), the equivalent of roughly 20 cows. Nutritionally it’s a decent trade off: 61 kilograms of accessible protein from the cow versus 1452 kilograms from the snails, with only about 10% of the fat and no methane (snails don’t fart). Energy-wise, a 100 gram/3 oz portion of snails comes in at roughly 80 calories versus 215 for the equivalent amount of beef. They provide a host of vitamins and minerals as well, notably Vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, and Omega 3s. There’s even a bit of tryptophan to make the world seem rosy. Heliciculture (snail farming) is appealing economically as well – that cow will sell for an average of $4000, the snails can bring in up to $45,000.
But down to the nitty gritty – how do they taste? Well, if prepared properly, neither nitty nor gritty. Most of us, if we’ve encountered snails as food at all, have done so à la Bourguignonne – drenched in butter, garlic and parsley – and I have to admit that combination of flavors could be poured over an old shoe and I’d probably eat it (although that would be nitty and gritty), and some claim that’s all you really taste. But the underlying flavor of the escargot itself – an earthy, woodsy, dark and elemental meatiness, a bit like mussels or smoked oysters, swapping out brine for a hint of steak-sear and mineral notes – is what evokes a Pavlovian response in aficionados and drives that 12 billion dollar demand. It plays well with garlic, yes, and revels in butter, but there’s a satisfyingly solid foundation there, savory and rich. The texture, again if prepared properly, is not at all the rubbery cliché, not at all slimy – more meaty with a pleasant bit of chew, and only gritty if they haven’t been thoroughly purged before cooking. Once mature and harvested, snails must be starved or fed a special diet for a week or two to cleanse their guts of any undesirable toxins (and grit) – this can be as simple as cornmeal and water, although some producers get fancy and purge with apples, grape leaves, and herbs which can also add subtle flavors to the flesh.
In Morocco they’re a street food called babbouche – say it, it’s fun – simmered slowly in broth containing an alchemist’s brew of spices: liquorice, thyme, caraway, lavender, tea leaves, and aniseed. Winter fare, and widely thought to keep seasonal illness at bay.
In Vietnam, they’re served in a Quán Ốc, sort of a combination beer garden/tapas bar – grilled, boiled, steamed, sopping up coconut milk, or stir-fried with chili peppers, tamarind paste, and lemongrass.
On Crete ask for Chochlioi boubouristi (Burbling/popping Snails), you’ll find them simmered in white wine with bay leaves, dredged in flour and rosemary, then fried up in olive oil, drizzled with vinegar, ouzo on the side.
And sometimes much more simply – in her book, ‘Serve it Forth’, MFK Fisher relates a story of observing the grape harvest in high, hot summer in the south of France,
“The incredible sun was in the middle of the sky. The workers in the vineyard stopped to rest and eat. They burned a stretch of grass at the edge of the vineyards along the roadside, and from the black ashes gathered in their hats the snails that had been roasted in the flames. Into cups, carried at their belts, they squeezed with their two hands the juice of half-rotted grapes. It tasted much like wine; it was not wasting the good grapes.
Roasted snails! Raw wine!
I noticed they crossed themselves before eating, gratefully.”
Acquired tastes are curious things, instinct has the edge over conditioning evolutionarily speaking – if something tastes bad or smells ‘off’ it most likely isn’t good for us: rotten eggs, spoiled meat, those red berries on the bush outside your childhood home that even the birds wouldn’t touch. But we do come to appreciate, and even love flavors and textures we once couldn’t stomach. It is the rare child who likes coffee, or liver, or raw oysters, or anything alcoholic. Or escargot. There are several theories as to why: one that posits our taste buds are much more sensitive when young, and the bitterness of coffee, the sourness of pickled herring, the briny mouthfeel of a plump Kumamoto are just too intense, a reaction that lessens as maturity kills off a receptor or two and our experience widens; another that speculates we simply learn to ignore a food’s perceived negative qualities in favor of perceived benefits (caffeine buzz, alcohol high). But this, to me, misses the point – I like coffee because it’s bitter, herring because they’re sour, a good glass of whisky as much for the initial burn as the following buzz. And just as I don’t remember what it was like to not be able to ride a bicycle, I can’t dredge up a time I didn’t like escargot, at least once I’d tried them. I’m sure I must have had some initial squeamishness at the idea, that along with sticks and puppy dog tails, snails – even though that’s what little boys are made of – were not to be eaten. I got over it, as I did my aversion to oysters, and bleu cheese, and a hundred other things that drove my mother to not-so-quiet despair. I still don’t like tuna casserole.
Yet again chasing snails in the jardin of the Hotel Dieu in Arles. It’s a short walk from our door, and Maddie and Max enjoy the hunt. Summer is here, the escargot are fat, and they can dangle their feet and splash in the little pool that Van Gogh painted (the kids, not the escargot). And here’s a thing: I’m sure there’s some psychological term for this phenomenon, but I can’t dredge it up – we spend about 5 minutes looking, straining our eyes against the dappled afternoon light, under every leaf and branch, moving rocks, scanning tree trunks, and…come up empty…can’t find a single spiraling shell. I began to think maybe a seasonal thing has occurred and we’re out of luck, and then…ah, wait…no, there’s one (two, actually, doing what amorous snails do in the shade and summer). And then, suddenly – and this is the thing – they’re everywhere, as if they’d all in that instant jumped out from behind the peonies and asters and shouted, “Ta-daaaa!” Without moving, I do a quick scan and easily spot a dozen. And so it follows, obviously, ergo, ellipsis…they were there all along – my eyes had just learned to identify them against all the background noise. They were there. I just couldn’t see them because I didn’t know how to look.
And I wonder how often this happens in the everyday…on the street, à la maison, with my wife, my children, people, ideas, prejudices, solutions….things we could see, should see, but don’t because we can’t focus for the noise. I won’t call it an existential crisis, but I have to acknowledge it happens, and it’s a bit troubling. I know from hunting snails that I’m trying, actively pushing aside leaves and branches, straining, but when will the perfect thing to say to calm a confused child, or support an exhausted partner pop out and present, “Ta-daaa!”?
Food for dappled thought.
Smokey Pine Grilled Escargot
(homage to a 30,000 year old Iberian)
This can be done on the grill, or over a campfire on a fire grate, in a pinch in the oven, although fire is elemental and nice…
– A note about sourcing your escargot: you’re not going to find fresh snails. The finest French restaurants do not use fresh snails. You could gather them in your garden after a rain, I suppose, purge them for a week or two, and….mostly you’ll find them canned or jarred in specialty stores or Asian markets, occasionally frozen and already stuffed with garlic butter and parsley, nestled in a ready-to-go foil tray. All of these are fine, some better than others. The Vietnamese snails tend to be a bit more chewy. If you can find Burgundy Snails (Escargot de Bourgogne/Helix pomatia) that would be a good route to go. Canned or jarred they will be without shells, but you can buy those as well. If you can only find the frozen, pre-prepared/butter-stuffed kind, don’t sweat it, this is a pretty hard recipe to mess up.
1 Dozen Escargot in shells (or 2 dozen, don’t be stingy)
3 – 5 Tblsp Butter, unsalted
4 – 12 Whole Cloves Garlic (seriously, as many as you like)
1 Tblsp Coarse Sea Salt
Fresh Herbs (Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Mint…whatever you have to hand, a good fistful)
A few grinds of cracked pepper
Technically not ingredients, but:
4 – 5 short pine boughs
Heavy Duty Aluminum foil
Lay out two sheets of the foil in a double layer. Smash the garlic cloves with the flat of a knife, coarsely tear the herbs, toss it all onto a large bowl. Season the escargot with salt, making sure to get some on the flesh inside the shells. Scrape a bit of butter into each of the shells (if using the prepared kind, skip this), and add them all to the herbs/garlic, along with any remaining butter. Quarter the lemon, squeeze the juice over the whole heap, and toss the quarters in for good measure. Grind over the pepper. Toss lightly and gently pour the whole thing onto the foil.
Close the foil over the top of the pile, pinching it shut and crimping/folding over the ends, making sure the edges are raised a bit to form a vaguely bowl-like pouch. Poke a few holes in the top of the pouch with a knife to allow the smoke to enter.
Place a couple pine boughs on a cooler section of the grill/fire-grate – you want them to smoke, not burst into flames. Nestle the foil packet on the boughs, cover with a couple more, and allow it to cook for @ 15 minutes. The pine will smoke and annoint the snails, melt the butter, roast the garlic, occasion alchemy. When done, remove from the ashes and allow to sit for a few minutes to cool (slightly). Tear open the packet, breathe deep the miraculous updraft. Squeeze a little more lemon on if so moved. Pry a snail out of its shell with an escargot fork, or a toothpick, or a broken pine branch, swirl it in the butter and herbs, maybe snag a garlic clove. Enjoy.
Think about ancient Iberians. Regret that you didn’t make more.