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.
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.
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.
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:
Copyright © 2016 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved