The thought of eating creatures like squid, oysters, eels, and snails makes some people feel squeamish. The first time that my husband and I ate snails we did experience an almost queasy sensation, but it was not caused by the escargot.
We were dining at a French restaurant at the top of the high-rise Indiana National Bank Building in Indianapolis, and unbeknownst to us, the windstorm in progress outside had reached tornado proportions, actually causing the towering building to sway.
We and the other diners, blissfully oblivious to the weather drama and the resulting falling awnings and signs and ripping roofs far below, merrily dined on. Henry and I quickly learned to extricate the buttery, garlicky snails from their shells. They were delicious!
Another less dramatic dinner beginning with snails was enjoyed at the French Pavillion at Epcot Center in Florida. Oh, how useful the absorbent French bread is for soaking up the heady sauce redolent of lusty garlic and fresh parsley!
In Paris, too, we sampled the little “mobile-home-dwellers” à la bourguignonne. There the best we encountered were served at a favorite restaurant of ours, the Apollinaire at 168 Boulevard St. Germain. One of the charms of the Apollinaire was the stunning freshness of their food. One could select a live trout from a tank.
In a little while, the trout, presented by Michel the waiter, would appear, golden brown and cooked to perfection, but while the chef accomplished this, a first course of snails could tide one over. There an order of snails is no more unusual than an order of shrimp cocktail here; and the rotund little creature are just as desirable — in their own mollusky way.
Not all snails are pan-worthy. Certain types have better flavor, making them potentially destined for the kitchen. In France the vineyard snail is the most popular, and the petit-gris of southern France is also used.
Before snails are served they need to have been deprived of food in case they have fed on plants harmful to humans. It is also advisable to eat only snails which have sealed themselves into their shells to hibernate (operculated snails).
Escargots have been prized as food as far back as Roman times. A man named Fulvis Lupinus is credited with having developed the skill of fattening snails to use as “gourmet” delicacies.
My funniest experience with snails involved a time during which I was beginning to fatten with pregnancy. We had not announced the fact that I was expecting to our two oldest children. Our daughter Sarah was attending a French class. Each day the students ate a typical Gallic food such as Brie cheese, dessert crêpes, or French bread.
One morning the children were introduced to canned snails heated with parsley and butter. Not much enthusiasm met this presentation. My darling Sarah, knowing of my normal fondness for escargots, brought home some leftovers for me. In the earliest stages of baby-making an offering of cold, canned, buttered snails in a paper cup does not send one into euphoria. (It almost sent me into the ladies' room!) Nevertheless, I still love those plump gastropods!
Copyright © 1991–2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.