Sunday, 19 October 2008

Why The French Eat Snails

For some reason I've been asked to give a talk at the Cranbrook & Tenterden Food & Drink Festival on the culinary history of snails. I have never eaten a snail in my life & know nothing about escargots except they are slow and the French eat them. However as I've been promised an opportunity to sell my book Food For Thought in a book signing at the same event I thought I'd give it a go. So for those who are interested here's a precis of my talk.
Snails have been eaten for thousands of years. Presumably they were an easy animal for the prehistoric hunter/gatherers to catch. Discarded roasted snail shells are a frequent component of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean area. Some food historians have argued that the snail was the first animal to be herded and bred for food. The reason for this is that they are relatively easy to cultivate. They are an efficient food, self-packed in a shell, which serves as a plate, the waste is small, the nutrition excellent. The snail was the very first ready meal!
It was the Romans who really developed the industrial breeding of snails. In the same way that Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone and the Wright Bros, the first aeroplane, you might be wondering, who was the snail-farming equivalent of Johan Gutenberg or John Logie Baird? Pliny tells us that Fulvius Hirpinus was the first to engage in snail-farming at Tarquinium, a Tuscan city not far from Rome about the year 50 B.C. Fulvius’ snail garden had varied species of snails with separate sections for each species and he fed them on wine and cornmeal. As time went on, the Romans developed ‘snaileries’ where a species of large snail, probably the Burgundy snail were kept in special farms, fattened on a diet of bran, flour, herbs, milk and wine dregs and bred for such characteristics as size, colour and fertility. When they were almost full-grown, they were transferred to jars with airholes. When they were so fat that they could not retreat into their shells, they were fried and served with wine and a fish sauce condiment known as liquamen. The latter, which was the Roman equivalent of tomato ketchup as it was served with everything, was made from the gills, blood and the inside of the fish and was then left with salt to stew in the sun.
Now I’d like you to imagine you are a guest at a Roman aristocrat’s banquet, which would include snails. Before eating you will have changed clothes putting on a woollen tunic provided for this purpose. The dishes will be presented first to the master of the house, accompanied by music and a servant executing a dance step. Meanwhile the guests, both men and women, will eat reclining with a crown of flowers over their head. If one of you becomes too full to eat anymore, a servant will be called over to tickle your throat. You will then vomit into a special bowl kept for that purpose, and proceed with the rest of the meal. Don’t worry if you belch, belching at the table is a sign of politeness. The banquets will be livened up by performances of acrobats, dancers, flute players and theatrical performances. Knives and spoons are only occasionally used, most people will eat with their fingers despite the prevalence of sticky sauces, however when it comes to the snails, which will be one of your favourite dishes, you will use a spoon with a pointed handle that can be used as a prong to extract the snails from their shells.
During the expansion of the Roman Empire snail culture was introduced into the countries that came under its control. It was of course the Romans who introduced snails to Britain, but when they left 500 years later, they took with them their recipe for snail a la liquamen leaving the Brits to feast on vegetable gruel, pottage and other delicious medieval recipes.
But how did snails catch on in France? After all today the French consume 40,000 metric tons of snails each year, which is a lot of escargots.
When Caesar invaded Gaul, his legionnaires munched on snails, introducing this gastropod to the French, where it became a culinary sensation. The Gauls, it seemed, enjoyed them as a dessert. In medieval France, monasteries and convents had a monopoly on snail farming. They had special snail parks there, where the escargots were stock-piled in barrels and brought out during festivals and in times when food was scarce.
By the sixteenth century it is clear that they were being served at banquets and snail sales were going through the roof. Monsieur or mademoiselle would cook them in a variety of ways, fried with oil or onion, cooked on skewers or simply boiled. Just as according to Sir Jimmy Saville, the 1970s was the age of the rail or train, so the 16th century was the age of the snail in France. In fact dining on snails was so fashionable that the Catholic Church classified them, along with frogs and turtles, as “fish” and they were therefore allowed to be devoured on Fridays, Lent and other meatless days without incurring the wrath of the church.
Of particularly interest is their inclusion in a little booklet published in 1530, with the catchy title of “Noteworthy Treatise Concerning the Properties of Turtles, Snails, Frogs and Artichokes” by Estienne Laigue. The author criticised four foods that he felt were all equally bizarre but popular with his contemporaries. Of the four, he was kindest to the snail. He wrote “I know snails are ugly, but not so hideous as turtles, nor so vile, and nothing like as poisonous; I also know that the ancients ate them, but I can’t accept people’s eating them daily, since other foods are more nourishing and of better substance.” The association of the three newly classified fish, that is turtles, snails and frogs was to be a constant in French cookbooks virtually from then. This was not only because they could be eaten on meatless days but also, there have always been people, like Laigue, who consider these foods unconventional. I’ve not been able to come up with an intelligent suggestion as to why Laigue particularly highlighted artichokes as well as the three supposed fishes, so as this blog is on snails rather than artichokes I’ll think I’ll just move on...
After 1560 snails went into a decline, culminating in a virtual banishment from refined tables in France for around 250 years. The evidence for this is abundant. If a cookery book gave a recipe for snails, it would be with an apology for introducing such a distasteful food-stuff. The 17th century French writer Nicolas de Bonnefons, who was also a valet at the court of Louis XIV, for instance was “astonished that the odd tastes of man had led him as far as this depraved dish in order to satisfy the extravagance of gluttony.”
In Paris in 1815, not one of the best restaurants had snails on the menu. There is, however, evidence that, although snails were absent from Parisian tables at the turn of the 19th century, they were being eaten in provincial France, particularly in Alsace and Lorraine
After the Napoleonic wars, the great snail comeback began after Talleyrand asked the celebrated French chef Careme to prepare some for the dinner which he gave for the Czar of Russia.
Meanwhile French wine merchants who went to eastern France each year on buying trips had to stay at the local inns where they were frequently served snails that had been gathered from the surrounding vineyards. The mollusc meal was commented upon in a complimentary manner by the merchants when they returned to their homes in Paris. An early 19th century Michael Winner might have reviewed the snail as an unusual but savoury dish. Enough interest was gradually aroused to the point where one of the coaches that travelled between Auxerre and Paris was hired to bring the first baskets of snails to the markets of the French capital.
The comeback sped up in the middle of the 19th century with the advent of the railroad meaning snails were not transported at snail pace any longer. Now they could be transported greater distances by train while still fresh. In this way new markets were developed not only in France but also in Italy and Spain.
The comeback was sealed by the spread of brasserie cafes to Paris by refugees who came from Alsace-Lorraine after the 1870 war. The snail-loving refugees incorporated the molluscs onto the menus and achieved so complete a reinstatement of the escargot that it has stayed in place ever since. Vive l’escargot!

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