Thursday, July 19, 2012

Escargots - Snails on French Menus and How to Order Snails in France. If You Enjoy Cockles, Mussels and Conches, Then Snails will not be Strange.

Escargots   Snails. 
Snails in France will be on many menus,
certainly on all traditional French bistro menus. 
Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman
When you order snails in France  then they should not be as strange as they may might seem to be when you first see them on a menu. If you like seafood that includes winkles, periwinkles, cockles, mussels and conchs etc; they are all in the same family as snails, in fact they are very close family members.

In France, and the French know a thing or two about good food, snails are considered to be among the tastiest members of their extended family.  The main and very obvious difference is that escargots grow on the land and not in the sea.

Photograh by courtesy of                      Photograph by courtesy of
Adem Djemil                                            Celine Asril

The Burgundy Snail                               The Blue Mussel

The meat of all the members of the snail and their seafood family members family is similar; however, when asked, I do not say they taste like chicken! The texture of snail meat is like that of their family members, mussels, cockles, conchs etc.  The sauce and cooking method, exactly like many chicken dishes, changes the taste.
If you like mussels and or cockles you will love snails. and if you have been to the Caribbean and enjoyed conchs you will love France's snails even more,
The two snails on French menus have been a natives of France, Germany, Spain and the UK since the Roman’s brought their favorite snacks with them 2,000 years ago. The Romans taught the French how to manage snail farms and also invented a method of creating artificial rain to make the snails grow faster.

These same snails have been natives of California since the gold rush days when immigrants from France, Italy, Germany and Spain imported them and raised them as food. Now, in the USA, these snails are farmed and sold to restaurants; however, in the wild the descendants of the original snail immigrants are considered pests.(Catalan -caragols de terra ). (Dutch -slakken),
  (German - schnecke), (Italian – lumache or conchiglia), (Spanish – caracoles),



Photograph by courtesy of Panduh.

      Escargots à la Bourguignonne.

Snails in the manner of Burgundy.

   If you are reticent about trying snails, do not order a whole portion, snails are sold in dozens; you may order just half-a-dozen in most restaurants. Ask.  Consider dipping your little toe in first, just to test the water, and for that you do not even have to eat a snail. In France when you order your first half portion of snails, order a demi-douzaine d'escargot, the smallest portion sold, of Escargots à la Bourguignonne, snails prepared in the manner of Burgundy.  Your order of une demi-douzaine d’Escargots à la Bourguignonne will bring you half dozen snails cooked in the manner of Burgundy; France’s most popular recipe snail recipe.  The sauce in which the snails are cooked, and served, in this dish is half the enjoyment.  The snails are always cooked outside the shell so if you do not like the shell I am sure they will do the necessary, many bistros, in any case, serve snails without the shell. 

Photograph by courtesy of Nicknamemiket

  Escargots à la Bourguignonne
 A half dozen snails prepared in the manner of Burgundy and here they are served without the shells.


    For that first test take some of that wonderful French bread on your table and dip it into the sauce that comes with the snails; then try just the bread and the sauce alone, without the snails.  If you liked the bread and the sauce then, for your next test, try half a snail with the bread and the sauce. The combination of that excellent sauce with a tasty snail should be enough to have you hooked and already ordering another half-dozen  snails to make up a whole portion.

If you are wondering which bread to eat with snails and snail sauce see the post:

French Bread: 

 The types of French Bread and a Lexicon for Buying French Bread.          

    While France has a number of edible land snails only two are seen in the market, and on restaurant menus, and only farm-raised snails will be on the menu. Snails may be served with a wide range of recipes and all traditional restaurants or bistros will have at least one snail recipe on the menu. 
              The snail on your menu will be one of the following:

Escargot de Bourgogne, Gros Blanc, Lunar or La Vignaiola - The Burgundy snail; also sometimes called the great white. These are the most expensive of the two snails that may be in contention. Burgundy snails have a striped yellow-brown meat and they may grow to about 4.5 cms; some may grow  a little larger but these snails are considered at their best their best when around 20 grams each. German - burgunder schnecke, weissen weinbergschnecke, gros bourgogne, gros blanc),   (Italian - vignaiola bianca , lumaca della Borgogna,  lumaca delle vigne,  elici  romano, elici della mela), (Spanish - caracol romano), (Latin - helix pomatia ).


Petit-gris, Luma,  Lumas, Chagriné, Carsaulada, Escargot Chagrine, La Zigrinata and Cargouille  - The small gray snail or the common snail.  In France the petit-gris is the most popular snail as it is the least expensive. This snail also has many more local names than the few I have noted above; every area of France has snail farms and the names used for the petit gris are often local names. If the menu just says escargot then the odds are that you are being offered the petit-gris. The petit-gris has brown-gray meat and they are ready for the pot when they reach around 10 grams each.  (German - kleinen grauen ),  (Italian - la ligure, chiocciola zigrinata, grigiolina dei giardini, maruzza,  la piccola lumaca grigia,), (Spanish – caracol europeo marrón, chagrine, caracol común de jardín), (Latin - helix aspersa).

There are many unique French snail dishes and the following are just a few of those that may be on the menu:
    Escargot a l’Alsacienne Snails in the manner of the Alsace. Snails cooked in the local white Riesling wine and served with snail butter. This dish will usually be prepared with the petit-gris snail.

Photograph by courtesy of Jun Sugahara,
  Escargot a l’Alsacienne Snails in the manner of the Alsace.

     Escargots à la Bourguignonne – Snails in the manner of Burgundy; this is the most famous of all snail recipes. Snails prepared with herbs, parsley cream and beurre d’escargots, snail butter; snail butter is butter, garlic, shallots and parsley with an occasional additional herb, in which the snails are cooked.  Snail butter, by the way, does not and never did contain any snails; this particular butter sauce will be used with many other dishes without snails.  In Escargots à la Bourguignonne the snails are taken out of their shells, prepared, cooked, and then, optionally, replaced in their shells and lightly baked in the oven. This dish is about as close as you can get to snail heaven.

Photograph by courtesy of Dion Hinchcliffe.
    Escargots à la Bourguignonne.

     Snails in the manner of Burgundy


        Escargot à la Provencal – Snails served in the manner of Provence.  These will be the petit-gris snails served in a fresh tomato sauce, flavored with garlic, pepper and parsley.
    Escargots, la DouzaineA portion of twelve snails, a dozen.  Like oysters and crates of wine, snails are still sold in dozens or half-dozens. The menu should have some additional information about how they will be served; if it does not, ask. 

     Gros Escargots de BourgogneThis is the same as Escargots à la Bourguignonne. I took this from a restaurant’s menu; here they are advising you, or at least claiming, that their snails are larger than the standard.

    Soupe d'EscargotsSnail soup; usually made with the petit gris snail.
    Cassoulet d’Escargots   A very different dish to the traditional meat and poultry cassoulets from the south; in fact there is no connection, none whatsoever. 


Photograph by courtesy of Randolph Croft.
Une Cassolette d'Escargots – Snail cassoulet.
    Cassoulet d'Escargots  will include local ingredients, though mostly the chef will not stray far from the original recipe. The petit gris snails will be cooked in a sauce made with mushrooms, shallots, garlic, butter, crème fraîche and a white wine and served as soon as it is ready. 
   These ancient Roman comfort foods are today found in the wild all over Europe and North America, and I am sure that others are in the wild on other continents. Despite the obvious draw of tasty free food chefs do not offer wild snails; all the snails served in France are farmed.  Farming snails insures that the food they are fed does not include any agricultural pesticides, and those may be found in wild snails. If you cook snails at home then buy them canned or from a local snail farm that you can trust.

 Most of the North American supply of snails comes from local snail farms. Despite that, North American snail production it is still a growing industry and does not produce enough to meet the local demand.  Even France has to import snails to meet demand.

Apart from many menus in West and Eastern Europe; snails are also part of the diet in most Central and South American countries.  The recipes for snails in Central and South America may have been influenced by the Conquistadors, but their consumption had begun, in Central and South America, much earlier, with local snail varieties.
In Africa snails are also part of the local diet and some very large snails are raised commercially. These large African snails may be seen when canned, pre-cooked, and sold as chopped snails.  If the label doesn’t say petit gris or Bourgogne then the odds are that they will be one of these large farmed African snails. I have been told that these cheaper canned snails are used  by some small restaurants in snail soups and by taste alone cannot be detected.  The Chinese are also farming and exporting fresh and canned Bourgogne snails; a la Chinoise!

France's chefs have hundreds of snail recipes, many more than I could put in this post, it would need a book at least. In the south of France snails will often be barbecued  at family get togethers, especially in areas with Catalan influences, and in the north of France they may be on the menu as snail profiteroles, that is snails cooked, each in its own pastry casing, and then served with a sauce. When you begin to enjoy snails, which you will, a whole new world will open up.

The Burgundy snail is seeing the beginnings of a homegrown European competitor that, it is claimed, will cost less.  This European hybrid snail is is called the Blond des Flandres; however, I have yet to see them on any menus.

Bryan G Newman
Behind the French Menu
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