Considered a tasty tidbit since the late Neolithic, the garden-variety gastronomical gastropod has slithered significantly across the path of modern culinary history. The first written recipe for snails appeared in France around 1390, in a guidebook on etiquette for young brides entitled Le Menagier de Paris. But it was only during the 16th century, when the Catholic Church classified snails (along with frogs and turtles) as “fish”, allowing them to be consumed on meatless days, that snails began to appear on French aristocratic tables.
During the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, snail-popularity shriveled. Only when Alsatians re-introduced them to diners on the menus of early 19th century brasseries did they regain their celebrity culinary status.
If you live in the United States, the snails gorging on your garden today are undoubtedly of early 19th century European origin. Their forebears were imported by French gastronomes who believed Americans would someday be slurping up these terrestrial mollusks in grand style. Sadly, when demand for escargot never materialized, the slow-moving self-housed hordes of helix aspersa were patiently sent pasture.
Yes, there was one brief “Snail Boom” in Northern California in the late 1990’s, when San Francisco Bay Area chefs from Europe began offering well-heeled young clientele a bit of cultural affirmation through old-world menus. As a result, a small cottage industry of snail-ranching arose that saw revenues slide all the wat up to the $300 million mark. Unfortunately, when the Dot-com boom went bust, the budding demand for snails again dried up. Today, in gardens throughout California, snails grow to a ripe old age in the pleasant twilight of their culinary disregard.
And now.…Snails a la Provençale; the oft-cited recipe from Alexander Dumas:
Soak 36 snails in cold water and a brush with a stiff brush. Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a large pot. Sift a handful of wood ashes, tie up in a cloth, and put to boil in the water 15 minutes. Add your snails and boil until they come out of their shells readily. After 12 or 15 minutes put the snails into fresh cold water and take them out of their shells, putting them into warm water. Meanwhile, In two tablespoonfuls of good oil, Sauté lightly (some) parsley, mushrooms, shallots, one half clove of grated garlic, salt, grated nutmeg, and a little green pepper, all chopped fine. Stir in one half tablespoon full of flour and add one glass of good white wine. When this sauce begins to simmer, drain your snails and add them, letting them simmer until completely cooked. Add two or three raw egg yolks to bind the sauce. Fill the shells with this mixture. Cover with bread crumbs, sprinkle with oil, and bake 15 minutes. Serve piping hot.