Opération Escargot

Shell without a snail (you can never find a live one when you need it)

Shell without a snail (you can never find a live one when you need it)

France’s cuisine was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2010, when it was included in the list of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. Why “intangible”? Good food might be a consolation for the soul, but it’s also a feast for most of the senses. I digress. This week’s damp weather put me in mind of one of the more humble representatives of French gastronomy, which is advancing in phalanxes on my irises and lurking under every leaf. What is it? The snail.

irises under attack

Irises under attack

Production and Consumption

Snails must come near the top of the list of foods that we Brits eschew at all costs, pipped to the post only by frogs’ legs, perhaps. I must admit that I am rather partial to snails, but that’s only when they are elevated to edibility by the addition of garlic and parsley butter. And lots of bread to mop it up. The gastropods themselves are a bit chewy and unexceptional.

Is it a myth that the French eat a lot of snails? Apparently, they consume around 30,000 tonnes per year. That’s slightly less than half a kilo per person, including babies, who don’t eat them, and children, who probably turn their noses up at them. Around 95% of edible snails are imported, especially from Eastern Europe.

This matter is considered sufficiently important for someone to have raised a question in the Assemblée Nationale about the provenance of snails and ways of assuring their quality. Difficult to imagine this subject exercising MPs in the UK Parliament in the same way.

Three types of edible snail exist: petit-gris, escargot blanc and escargot de Bourgogne. The largest, l’escargot de Bourgogne, is the one you generally encounter in restaurants. In 2015, there were 250 to 300 licensed héliciculteurs (snail breeders) in France.

A local restaurant, l’Auberge de la Grange du Cros, breeds snails of the petit-gris variety, found on the menu when it’s the season. Every summer, a snail breeder from Villeneuve-d’Aveyron turns up at the Caylus Saturday market but I haven’t yet tried his wares.

Purveyor of snails - one uncertain customer

Purveyor of snails – one uncertain customer

Important source of food

Humble and undistinguished though it may be, the snail has its place in the history and culture of France. It was a valuable and easily-harvested source of protein in times of hardship. From there, it became an everyday comestible.

I remember a scene from Marcel Pagnol’s memoire La Gloire de Mon Père (set largely in the Provençal back country). Pagnol’s father and l’oncle Jules, usually the best of friends, disagree on religion and drinking. They are working up to a monumental row, when l’oncle Jules’ wife thrusts a wire cage into his hand and tells him to go out and collect snails. He goes off uncomplaining, since “l’oncle Jules loved the rain.” This family was on the ladder of gentrification – Jules was a civil servant and Pagnol’s father was a teacher. But they didn’t shun simple peasant food.

The SF spent several years in France during the 1970s and became an aficionado of French cuisine. These special snail plates date from that time, as do the implements for grasping the shell and winkling out the snail.

Dedicated snail-eating implements

Dedicated snail-eating implements

French snail facts

Opération escargot? Snails have a reputation for moving slowly, although they can put on a spurt if they feel like it. However, when lorry drivers, taxi drivers, etc wish to protest against French government policy, they block motorways and the access to airports en masse by driving at a snail’s pace, fanned out across the carriageway.

Finally, if you carry live snails on a TGV (high-speed train) in France, you could be liable to a fine if each individual does not have its own ticket. This happened to someone in 2008, although the fine was eventually waived. It stems from a law stipulating that live domesticated animals of less than 5 kg must be paying passengers. Yet another of the unfathomable rules of French life. But remember this when you want to take your pet snail on holiday.

You might also like:

Frog and Toad
French Seasonal Treats: Répounchous
Seasonal Treats: Asparagus and Strawberries
Snakes Alive!

Copyright © 2016 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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22 Responses to Opération Escargot

  1. Cro Magnon says:

    At our village’s summer ‘Producer’s market’, there is a man who sells cooked snails. They are totally delicious, but quite expensive. I am a dedicated eater of this man’s snails, and not a week goes by without my having my €8 worth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      8 euros sounds quite a lot, but then I gather that breeding snails is quite difficult and conditioning them is labour-intensive. A bit like oysters, another example of a once-abundant and cheap (or free) food that has become a luxury.

      Like

  2. Seems all the gardeners are battling with snails this year. I’m overrun – a row of 12 lettuce disappeared over night almost, just the roots remain. Someone suggested diatomaceous earth to me on one of my snail posts however I haven’t yet found the word in my French dictionary

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Mm. I’ve heard of diatomaceous earth in relation to swimming pools some years ago, but I don’t have any understanding of how that might help. I believe you can buy things called nematodes, which are very tiny creatures that prey on slugs and snails. More than that, I don’t know and, as someone once said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So I think I had better call a halt to my very limited understanding here.

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      • I think I’ll stick to encouraging the frogs, toads and hedgehogs plus I pick a bucket full every night and evict them down to the canal side. There again I read somewhere that snail are homing creatures…ah well!

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Oh no! You’ll have to take them further afield. Dig a pond, if you don’t already have one, that’ll get the frogs and toads moving in.

        Like

  3. Another delightful account of french life. My husband loves snails but i content myself with sneaky bits of bread dipped in the famed butter mix. A few years ago a french friend was stunned to arrive as i was cooking them. My old man went up hugely in said visitor’s estimation as he commented he had never met a brittanique who ate snails! I have never heard about the tgv tickets. One for tonight’s dinner party, thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Well, you can tell your French friend that your husband is not the only Britannique who eats snails! I found the TGV story on another website but have not verified if it’s true. However, it makes a good anecdote…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. At times I think our garden here in the Charente Maritime is overrun with snails, big ones, small ones, huge families of them and so many baby snails. As you say they hide in the iris leaves, they are all over the valerian buds, they love nothing better than to hide behind our open shutters and they adore the leaves of the hollyhocks. However, I am at peace with our snails. I let them chomp away on all of the above, they don’t hinder any of the flowering and that’s what matters. Most of all though, for some reason they leave our vegetable garden alone. Now I hope that by writing this I am not giving a silent signal to the snails to head east down the garden and find a new home!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      They have been encouraged by the unusually damp weather, unfortunately. However, we have a very active community of toads who, when not trying to breed in the swimming pool, make short work of the slugs and snails. I hope you have not tempted the hand of providence to devastate your potager!

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  5. Great post – I collect the petit gris I find in my potager for the next door neighbour. She cooks them for her grandson, who’s crazy for them! A total win-win!! I think I could easily turn my potager into a snail breeding farm, they seem to thrive there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ROBBOC says:

    Love Pagnol’s stories, but La Gloire has eluded me so far – thank you for the prompt to get a copy. As for snails: non merci.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m re-reading La Gloire de mon Père right now, but I haven’t yet got to the snail hunting scene. Next time you come round for dinner, I’ll make sure that snails are on the menu. 😉

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  7. Osyth says:

    tickets for snails to ride on a train – this could ONLY be France!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. gillianbrown1 says:

    I love snails, Vanessa. This mostly stems from my time in Burgundy where the snails bought in the market had a real flavour which wasn’t overcome, rather enhanced by, the garlic and parsley butter. Often in restaurants they are décongelés and tasteless. Love the story of the TGV travelling snails!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      One of the best snail dishes I ever tasted was in the Bourgogne – an open ravioli with snails. In fact, I remember the whole meal after 25 years, it was so delicious. But subsequent meals involving snails have been more disappointing – probably they were previously frozen or canned.

      Like

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