Snails for dinner? To many people, it sounds like an outrageous proposal, but it’s far more common than you might think.
In the United States, people are far more likely to order a burger and fries than take a chance on something like snails, but for the adventurous citizens of France and the Mediterranean, escargot is a daily thing just like coffee and croissants!
Escargot is one of those rare dishes that completely polarize the population – you either love it, hate it, or are too grossed out to try it in the first place. However, if you’ve ever been interested in sampling escargot, we strongly encourage you to give it a chance.
In this article, we’re giving escargot a closer look and hopefully inspiring some curious readers to put it on their list of things to try. Here you’ll find a brief history of escargot, some of the snail species worth serving, and a few popular recipes that people enjoy throughout the world.
We’ll also talk about some other unusual ingredients that appeal to an advanced palate (caviar, anyone?) and an aptitude for adventure. Here we go!
Etymology and History
We know that escargot means snails on our dinner plate, but what does the word really mean? It comes as no surprise to discover that the French word literally translates to “edible snail,” dating back to the late 19th century.
Turning the wheel of time back further, we see the word derived from the Classical Latin conchylium, which is said to mean “edible shellfish or oyster.” This reveals to us that people have been snacking on snail meat since ancient times, just as they would enjoy other bivalves and mollusks from the rivers and seas of the Mediterranean region.
Think about it – at the dawn of civilization, people were eating everything they could get their hands on! Natural human curiosity led them to crack open extremely tough shells like oysters, clams, and even spiky sea urchins to discover that the interior was not only very tasty, but highly nutritious as well. Ancients also enjoyed cured sturgeon roe as we do today.
To Westerners, festive clambakes and ice-cold oyster trays are perfectly normal. Premium caviar is thought to be the most luxurious food available. We even crack open lobsters with our bare hands and gleefully douse them in warm butter - so why do we raise an eyebrow when it comes to snails?
The quick explanation is that it’s simply a matter of culture, especially in the United States.
The British origins of the country aren’t exactly the most spirited when it comes to cuisine, and French influence tended to be far more prevalent north of the border in Canada.
But while the French often take credit for the popularization of escargot (or lack thereof), there are many other regional variations of edible snails that deserve attention as well. The people of Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Spain also use this ingredient in generous portions.
Don’t be put off by the fact that so many people enjoy eating snails! It’s a longstanding tradition with many different cultural interpretations.
Edible Snail Species
We don’t expect you to start foraging in your local swamps and forests, looking for snails to pop into your mouth for an afternoon snack. Escargot might seem like a wild idea to many stubborn eaters in the USA, but believe us that there is a method to the madness.
With hundreds of different snail species found in nature, we must first recognize that very few of them are actually suitable for escargot. Some species contain toxins, while others are simply not large enough to warrant harvesting, cooking, and consuming them.
Historically, the most common edible snail species is Otala lacteal, better known today as the Milk Snail or the Spanish Snail. Remains of these shells have been uncovered at dig sites throughout regions of the Roman Empire, now in modern-day Spain, Italy, and Morocco.
These days, the French mainly enjoy the species Helix pomatia, which offers a considerable amount of meaty flesh and cooks perfectly with traditional French preparations. Unfortunately, this snail species is difficult to farm and fetches a high market price as a result.
Other snail species can be found throughout Europe and are better suited for commercial snail farming, a practice known as heliciculture. The most commonly farmed species is the Garden Snail, or Cornu aspersum. Even with heliciculture practices in place, the process is laborious, and the prices of these snails are not necessarily low.
In Asia, Pila polita is the most prominent snail variety, known by the name Apple Snails. These can be found in large, vacuum-sealed packages at street markets and in stores, though they lack some of the desired characteristics of the in-shell escargot varieties in the west.
Recipes and Preparations
Enough about snail species; let’s talk food. We start with French cuisine and the most famous escargot recipe known worldwide. In this preparation, chefs will kill the snails in-shell then remove them for cooking, typically in batches of six or 12.
Garlic, butter, parsley, and other aromatics are added to beef or vegetable stock, after which the snails are submerged into individual trays or compartments, depending on the kitchen. The snails are baked at high heat to absorb these various juices and flavors, then served with a sprinkle of breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper before hitting the table.
Diners are warned as they prepare to dig in – those snails are hot! They should be allowed to cool for a moment before they are individually skewered, admired, and enjoyed.
The French know their stuff when it comes to cooking, but other cultures have made their mark on edible snail dishes as well.
The Greeks take a lighter approach to cooking snails, opting for white wine, celery, onion, and a dash of vinegar. However, some versions of this dish include a light fried flour coating for a tasty crunch to contrast to the tender snail meat.
On the isle of Malta, smaller snails are simmered in red wine with fresh herbs such as mint or basil. No frills, just the purest flavors at the forefront.
You will also find snail snacks for sale in modern Morocco, in the form of a dish known as “Ghlal.” The snails are cooked in a hot, spicy broth and served in a cup for sipping. Nothing wrong with that.
Other Unusual Delicacies
You may be a longtime lover of escargot, or maybe you’ve only just learned about it. The beauty of the culinary arts is that there’s always something new to try, and the classics never get old.
If escargot seems a bit out of your wheelhouse, you may want to start with some more familiar shellfish like oysters, clams, mussels, or even shrimp. This will open up some new possibilities for your palate and make you more comfortable with different types of cuisine.
For those who love escargot and all its shellfish friends, it’s also worth taking a closer look at caviar, which offers an amazing range of color, texture, and flavor. There is also an exciting and enjoyable process to serving and tasting caviar that you simply have to try!
The guests at your next dinner party may not be fully on board with snails in the shell, so serve up some premium Ossetra caviar to make everyone happy.