Sunday, 4 July 2010

Slow Food

The snail hunting season has been officially opened for this year. Not with the trumpets and show of Saint Hubert’s day for the larger animal hunting season, but with plastic carrier bags and sticks at dawn.

There is an amazing variety of snails throughout the planet in terms of size, shape and colour but only one is the hero of the day. In Roman times “escargot” was considered to be a food for the elite (widely documented by Pliny the Elder I will have you know) and this Roman snail was the Helix Pomatia, now more commonly known as the Burgundy snail.

The great popularity of the Helix pomatia and the fact that it is almost impossible to farm, has led to it becoming a protected species. In reality this means that it can only be hunted in France for personal use and not for resale, it can only be hunted from 1st July to mid-February and then only if its shell is more than 3 cm diameter. It remains therefore an expensive delicacy.

As I write this blog, France is in the depths of a snail shortage, snail processing companies can no longer procure sufficient snails on the open market to fulfil the 25,000 tonnes needed to feed the French population every year. Whilst many claim that dry summers are affecting this shortage it is interestingly enough more likely to be the fault of the EU - an institution of which the French are fiercely proud. Extending the borders of the EU has opened up greater financial possibilities for the people of Poland and Hungary than collecting snails ever could. Two thirds of the 700 million snails eaten in France every year, came from Eastern Europe and at a sale’s price of just 2 cents a snail you can see why these people have gone looking for better jobs!

Snail farms have been geared up to cope with the shortages, however the snails that can be farmed are the Helix apersa aspersa (le petit gris) and the Helix aspersa maxima (le grand gris) and the true epicurean can tell the difference between them and the “real thing”. Most shockingly of all, tonnes of Helix lucorum (a significantly inferior creature even than the Helix aspersas) are being imported by unscrupulous traders from the Balkans and Turkey and are being passed of as Burgundy snails.

It must be said though that our local sources are adamant that there is not a shortage of snails in either Burgundy or France, but there is however, a shortage of people who can be bothered to get up at 5 o’clock on a damp summer’s morning, who have the knowledge of which snails to choose and where to find them and who are therefore out there collecting their own. Most snail collectors round here will collect and preserve hundreds in a summer and these home preserved snails still make up one quarter of all the snails eaten in France.

Just for interest, this is how they do it:

Put the live gathered snails in a box with a layer of flour on the bottom and leave them to wander around the box for 3 days or until their droppings are white. They have then been cleaned from the inside. Some people add fresh herbs to the flour on the last day.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and drop these cleaned snails into the water (shells and all) and boil for about 10 minutes. Remove the snails from the water and then extract the snail itself from its shell and remove the intestine and any other black parts. These snails then need to be cooked for a further 10 minutes before being preserved either frozen or traditionally place in sterilised jam jars and covered with Burgundy escargot butter.
1kg butter, 3 heads of crushed garlic (note heads not cloves), 3 shallots finely chopped, a large bunch of fresh parsley finely chopped (about 100g), salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly then bring to melting point before pouring over the snails.

The snails should be served hot either on a plate or in their shells which should be sterilised before use.

And you thought a snail was just something that left a slimy trail on your garden path…

La Tuilerie Website

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