September is for snails

by mimithorisson

There are only two hundred snail farms in France, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered that one of them was just around the corner. Heliciculturalist Françoise Pion and her husband Francis have been successfully cultivating the Helix aspersa maxima, better known as the ‘gros gris’ snail. France remains the largest consumers of snails in the world, consuming 40,000 tons per year. It is considered a delicacy and loved by most, especially cooked in the manner of ‘Escargots à la Bourguignonne‘, baked in the oven with garlic butter. Snail cuisine represents a very important part of French heritage, just like foie gras, wine and cheese.

Françoise & Francis Pion

Françoise advised me to come on a rainy day, when the snail pens are most impressive. The wooden sheds are covered in thousands of gros gris (large grey) snails. Even in my wildest imagination had I never witnessed such a scene. Cultivating snails requires a meticulous understanding of nature, balance and patience. The mortality rate can be as high as 40% as these molluscs are very sensitive to the environment, but the couple discovered a homeopathic doctor, a snail whisperer, renowned for his herbal treatments. The water sprayed on the snails is infused with a special concoction. Since then the snails have been healthier than ever, with hardly any mortality rates. These treatments are also used in oyster farms in the Arcachon bay and have proven to be very successful.

I have always loved snails since I was a child. If there are escargots on the menu, I will most probably order them. Ancient Romans considered snails to be an elite food, often served during Lent as it was neither considered meat nor fish. In the old days, châteaux in France had their own private snail farms to cater to their gourmet tables. Snails are mature when a lip forms at the opening of their shell. Snail picking usually starts in September. Unless you live in an snail-friendly environment or a snail farm, buying them fresh can be a difficult task. However, you can find good-quality canned or frozen snails in most fine ‘épiceries‘ (grocery store/delicatessen). Françoise’s clientèle is mostly based around Bordeaux and Médoc, catering to some of the major chefs around the region.

It was obvious I had to ask Françoise and her husband Francis to introduce me to snail recipes, as I have never cooked them before. They kindly shared a few of their favourite ones, such as snails à la Bourguignonne (her favourite – baked in garlic butter), snails à la Bordelaise (his favourite – meat based wine sauce) and snails sautéed in cèpes mushrooms and persillade (parsley and garlic). I had so much fun learning how to prepare these delicacies with them – I couldn’t have had better teachers! The garlic butter was exactly what I had wished for (I kept the left-over butter in the freezer – it will be perfect for steaks), and the Bordelaise sauce was pure extravagance. It was so good, next time I will make a double portion so I can save some sauce for a pasta dish.


Preparing the snails:

Blanch in boiling water for 5 minutes. Rinse several times in clear water. In a large bowl of water mixed with 2 tbsp of vinegar, clean the snails with the help of a small brush (a toothbrush is good). Rinse in clear water again.

Prepare the court-bouillon (broth):

2 litres chicken broth
250 ml dry white wine
1 small onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
Salt and pepper

Chop the onion, celery, carrot and parsley, add in a large saucepan with the wine and broth. Add bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a soft boil. Place snails in pot, the broth should cover snails entirely. Cover and cook them on a low heat for 2 hours. Let the snails cool in the broth. Use a small ‘snail’ fork to remove the snails from their shells. Insert the fork to separate the meat from the shells, twisting the shells away from the meat to separate. Discard (just tear with your fingers) the ‘twisted’ past of the snail (intestines). If you are cooking a recipe with shelled snails, return the snail back in its shell. Just push it back in with a small fork or use your index finger. If you are cooking the snail’s flesh, just set aside on a plate or prepare for freezing storage in a ziplock bag.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

For 7 dozen snails (84 snails)
250 g butter (at room temperature)
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
1 bunch of parsley
1 tbsp fleur de sel/ coarse salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 pinch ground nutmeg

In a food processor, mix garlic and shallots for 2 minutes. Add parsley, salt, pepper and nutmeg and mix 1 minute. Add butter (at room temperature) and mix 30 more seconds until you get a smooth paste. Place a small piece of garlic butter (approx 1 tsp depending on size of snail) inside snail. Arrange snails in an appropriate dish and place them in a preheated oven at 200°C degrees for about 5-8 minutes and serve.

Escargots à la Bordelaise

For 9 dozen snails
450 g sausage meat
150 g ham (cut into small squares)
5 small shallots
2 garlic cloves
A handful of parsley
1 kg tomato passata
½ liter red wine
½ liter chicken broth
2 tbsp flour
Olive oil (for frying)
Salt and pepper
1 pinch chilli powder

In a large pan, heat olive oil and add minced garlic and shallots . Cook until soft and slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add sausage meat, ham and parsley and continue to cook until browned. Take the pan off the heat, add 1 tbsp of flour and mix well. Return to heat, add tomato passata, mix well, cover and cook on a low heat for 15 minutes. Add chicken broth, red wine, salt, pepper and chilli. Cover and cook for a further 15 minutes. Add shelled snails and cook for 10 minutes on a very low heat. Serve immediately.

Escargots aux cèpes

300 g cleaned and coarsely chopped cèpes mushrooms
300 g deshelled snails
1 garlic clove (sliced)
A bun of parsley, finely chopped
Butter (for frying) or garlic butter (see previous recipe)
Salt and pepper to taste

Clean and slice mushrooms coarsely. Heat a frying pan on a medium heat. When the pan is very hot, add the mushrooms, without any fat. Fry for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Set aside and drain if necessary. Melt garlic butter (see previous recipes) in frying pan, sauté snails (deshelled) for 2-3 minutes. Return mushrooms to pan, stirring constantly. On a high heat, add chopped parsley and garlic, salt and pepper, mix well for 10 seconds. Serve immediately.