As with most animals, it is what snails eat that most affects their own eating quality. Wild snails consume almost anything in their path, which is why they have to be flushed out in a bucket of water for 10 days to get rid of toxins. Alan Gardener, who sells over two million farmed snails a year by mail order under the New Dawn label, rears his on cereal and herbs.
Youth is the other crucial factor where flavour and texture are concerned. French escargots, left to their own devices outdoors, achieve saleable size only after 3-4 years. Activity makes snails grow, but these ones spend so much time asleep (whenever the weather is too hot, too cold or too dry) that they limp towards maturity. Cosseted British snails are woken up daily in their nursery boxes with a shower, and feed and grow to marketable size in 16 weeks.
The first snail farm in Britain was set up in L'Escargot's basement at 48 Greek Street during the 1920s to guarantee freshness of supply. Nowadays the snails are delivered ready-blanched in the shell, but preparation is labour-intensive. Each one has to be taken out of its shell to remove the black part at the end of the tail (cloaca) before cooking. The mantle, comprising the liver and other organs, is said to be the most delicious part and is left on. Only after simmering in a court bouillon for a couple of hours is the snail a viable ingredient for a recipe.
Fortunately for home cooks, these early stages of preparation are now mostly carried out by snail producers. You can even buy pre-prepared recipe dishes. The classic entree involves presentation in the shell, a fiddly business involving grooved dishes (escargotieres), tongs and two-pronged forks.
Not everybody consumes the gastropods in this way, however. In south-eastern France, the shells of small snails are sometimes pierced underneath after cooking and the flesh sucked through the hole. It's hard to imagine British dinner guests doing this willingly so if you don't want to buy the escargotieres, try piping mashed potato on to a plate and fixing the snails to this, in their shells, as they do at L'Escargot.
Strict vegetarians can enjoy the semblance of consuming snails by making up a nutty stuffing and serving it in the shells, as the French used to do (though with meatier ingredients) when their beloved escargots were out of season. You can buy the shells without purchasing the meat; conversely, the meat is available on its own for use in tarts, fricassees, soups, stir-fries, pasta sauces, pies and kebabs. In Mediterranean countries, snails are cooked in wine, then sauteed with bacon and herbs in olive oil.
Snails can be bought from good delicatessens, or by mail order from New Dawn Snail Products (phone 0905 428454 for a price list). As a rough guide, you can buy 50 snails in their shells - ready stuffed with garlic butter for 14. Save money by re-using the shells (available separately at 10p each) and paying pounds 8 for the same quantity of ready-cooked snail meat. The first two recipes below are from David Cavalier at L'Escargot. The third is provided by Mark Page at the Selfridges
Hotel. In all of them, the snails should be pre-cooked by boiling in a court bouillon for two hours.
(removed from their shells)
1 packet frozen filo pastry
For the butter:
small tin anchovies
zest of one lemon
55g/2oz ground almonds
handful of parsley
pinch crushed garlic
Mix the ingredients together in a bowl. Wrap the resulting anchovy butter around each snail, put on a tray and freeze. Cut squares of pastry approx three layers thick and 10cm/4in wide. Brush with beaten egg, wrap around the buttered snail, drawing pastry into a moneybag. Freeze, then deep-fry and serve with a red wine and shallot sauce.
(removed from their shells)
handful diced shallots
150ml/ pint port and 150ml/ pint veal stock
bottle Chablis, or enough to cover your shallots
225g/8oz softened butter
zest of 4 lemons, plus juice of one
55g/2oz ground hazelnuts
2 cloves crushed garlic
lots of chopped parsley
salt and pepper
Sweat the shallots in olive oil, then cook them in the wine until all the liquid has been absorbed. In a bowl, add the sweated shallots to the lemon juice, zest, hazelnuts, garlic, egg and parsley and beat together to form the parsley butter. Reduce the port and veal stock in a saucepan and coat the snails in it so they are tacky. Stuff each empty shell with a little of the parsley butter, then the snail, then some more of the butter and store in the fridge. Cook for 5-7 minutes in a hot oven and serve immediately. (If you don't have the special dimpled dishes, pipe mashed potato on to an ordinary plate and fix the snails on to this.)
(removed from their shells)
4 large peeled shallots
1 clove garlic
1 bunch basil (or small jar pesto)
2 large courgettes
4 plum tomatoes
2 pieces streaky bacon
1 head curly endive
150ml/5fl oz walnut oil
30ml/1floz sherry vinegar
For the pastry:
Combine the butter, salt and eggs. Mix in the flour until a dough is achieved. Roll out on a floured board until 1cm/in thick. Cut out six 15cm/6in rounds, and line six 10cm/4in non-stick cake tins. Press in a small piece of greaseproof paper, fill with raw rice and bake blind at 200C/430F/Gas 5 for 15 minutes.
Shred the shallots and cook with the one clove of crushed garlic and a spoonful of pesto. Add snails and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Spoon this mixture evenly into the six tartlet cases; top with sliced, seasoned courgettes. On top of the courgettes arrange neatly thin slices of plum tomatoes. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, drizzle with olive oil and bake in a moderate oven 200C/430F/Gas 5 until golden brown.
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