The Hierarchy of the Snail World
Escargot is one of the best known dishes of France. Who hasn't tried, or at least been forced to try, those rubbery little snails bathed in garlic and butter and stuffed into either a little cassoulet dish or back into their shells? Who hasn't fantasized about being Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, shooting a shell across a fancy dining room with the force of a Howitzer?
Though escargot might appear to be the height of sophistication, or an exercise in daring dining depending on whom you ask, once people get past the idea of eating snails, they usually enjoy them as a tasty occasional appetizer without going into too much other detail.
Recently, however, while reading about the French region of Burgundy, I found out that the most prized escargot snails of all come from there, and that you rarely see them outside the fanciest of restaurants. What you normally get are just your run-of-the-mill farmed snails, called petits gris, or "little grays." So that got me thinking, what makes Burgundian snails so special?
It so happened that on our recent trip to France, we ate at a restaurant in Paris's 1st Arrondisement called, appropriately enough, L'Escargot Montorgueil, that, throughout its century-long history, has specialized in snails. Not only did we learn that snails have been eaten since ancient times (more on that in a moment), but that they have been a favorite dish of royalty and plebes alike for all that time. Henry IV of France, for instance, loved the little slugs, valuing them for their healthy properties, and believing them to be an essential part of his diet. He also had a few other seemingly gross habits that attracted him toward ladies with furry legs and B.O., but who are we to judge historical mores?
While at L'Escargot Montorgueil, we were lucky enough to get a half-dozen Burgundians each. My mother opted for the traditional garlic-butter-parsley recipe, while I chose a more nouvelle combo with two in traditional sauce, two in a creamy Madras curry, and two in Roquefort blue cheese sauce. I couldn't decide which I liked best, so I'll just have to go back and try again.
What we noticed, however, was that the Burgundians were bigger, plumper, and had much sweeter, more refined flesh that the petits gris that we were used to, including the others we had eaten in the days prior to going to L'Escargot Montorgueil.
Here is what else I learned about them upon my return to the U.S.--and to regular internet access!
Burgundian snails are of the species Helix Pomatia, and are also called Roman snails since it is thought that he Romans are the ones who brought them to Burgundy (and all over Europe) in the first place. Plus, snail shells have been found all over ancient Greek and Roman sites, and even on prehistoric sites, proving humans have been enjoying them for millennia, though probably not in such rarefied preparations.
They usually measure under two inches long, and can weight as much as 45 grams as adults. Their coloring is an earthy brownish-gray with some occasional white stripes. One of the characteristics that sets them apart from other snails produced as foodstuffs is that they die in captivity, and can only be cultivated in the wild. For that reason, there are strict controls over the harvesting of them, and some pretty tight quotas--hence their rarity.
Some other interesting facts? Snails love the spring, but dig into the soil in the winter to hibernate. They do best in soil with calcium deposits since that is what they use to build their shells, and the hardiest of them can live for up to 20 years!
One final fun fact: snails are hermaphroditic, so their procreation process is a little...complicated. They have to use these things called "love darts" in order to reproduces. Kind of violent, kind of kinky, totally sluggy. For more information on love darts, take a look here.
First France, Then the World!
By one estimate, the French consume about 20,000 tons of snails per year. What is even more staggering is the fact that this is only about half (yes, half) the amount that was eaten 50 years ago!
But that's only part of the story. These snails are all over Europe now. They were introduced to the British Isles by the Romans as well, and there they are called the Roman snail. In England, they are a protected species, and it is illegal to kill or injure them, let alone sell them for dinner.
You can also find them in Scandinavia in little pocket populations, which were probably brought there by monks during the Middle Ages.
Recipe from Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Escargots-a-la-Bourguignonne-233523