A Snail Farm?

Northeast Magazine - December 2003


While visiting Provence a few years ago we met a man with several claims to fame. Yves Rousset-Rouand, owner of an excellent winery Domaine del la Citadelle is also the mayor of Menerbes, a picturesque hill town in the Luberon region of Provence. He owns perhaps the largest corkscrew collection in the world and he produced the two famous x rated films of the 60’s, "Emmanuelle" and "The Story of O". Like most Frenchman he’s passionate about his local wine and food and began talking about escargot, a favorite national dish. While tasting his wines, he expounded about the local snail farms in this region. We thought he must be joking. But then we had never thought about how snails are harvested. We assumed that snails were quite natural creatures picked wild from the land. So, in a farm, are the snails allowed to run free, then rounded up and corralled before being processed? And if one escaped just how far could that snail go? Such concerns peeked our interest. We were intrigued to say the least.

An enthusiastic Yves offered to show us, and on what felt like a wild goose chase through the twisting dusty roads of the Luberon valley we raced at a bolting rabbit's pace in search of a snail farm. Eventually, in the middle of nowhere, we pulled off the road into a large field. Yves proudly turned towards this seemingly empty space and said, “This is an escargot farm!”

Upon closer inspection we saw that about a quarter of an acre was indeed fenced off. As snails are not known for their jumping skills there was just a low wire fence. Inside this corralled space were open wooden slatted crate-like structures. We could see a few snails, but hidden on the dark underside of the slats, thousands upon thousands of escargot quietly wandered and intermingled while munching on specially planted herbs and bran.

If you ever wondered how these snails finally end up in the escargot dish, it’s not just about collecting a few random snails and putting them in the pot.  The farmer explained that there’s an elaborate preparation procedure involving fattening, enforced fasting and purging before the humble gastropod is ready for the table.

But enough said, because snails are one of our favorite starters. While Bob’s mother protected him from such foreign cuisines - he was in his twenties before being exposed to such delights - Pru’s transformation from finicky eater to culinary adventurer occurred at the tender age of four. It was a pivotal moment.  While traveling Europe with her parents and sister they stopped at a small French bistro. Her parents each ordered a plate of escargot. And as it was their responsibility to at least expose them to the native cuisine, they offered them each a snail thinking they wouldn't like it. But oh boy, were they wrong! They loved them and from then on demanded plates of there own.

A restaurant dish at home

We always thought that it would take many years of apprenticeship in the bowels of a French kitchen to make Escargot Bourguignonne. Consequently for many years we never made it at home but would always order it in restaurants.

The reality is that it is an easy dish to make. Just read the instructions on the back of a can of escargot! The ease of preparing the escargot should embarrass any high falutin’ French restaurant because it’s as straightforward as draining, heating and serving. The exquisite sauce is also easy to make. The ingredients are simply butter, garlic and parsley with sometimes the addition of lemon and shallots. In 10 minutes you'll be indulging in one of France’s seminal dishes.

Prudence & Bob's Escargots Bourguignonne

Serves 2 (6 snails each)

Most restaurants swim escargot in far too much butter - in this recipe we cut back on oil compensating with a lot of garlic and parsley.

1 can containing 12 escargot, drained and rinsed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons minced shallot or scallion (optional)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons very finely minced parsley

2 tablespoons dry white wine

With the back of a spoon mix together the butter, garlic, shallot, salt and parsley making a paste. Add 1/2 teaspoon of white wine in each indentation in the escargot plate. Place one escargot in each indentation and top each escargot with equal amounts of the butter paste. Place the escargot dish in a pre-heated 400 degree oven for 10 minutes or until the butter is melted and bubbling. Serve hot with lots of good crusty bread to soak up the sauce.

The right wine - our suggestions

At a pinch a rich Sauvignon Blanc might suffice, but overall we suggest a Chardonnay would fit the bill even better. And there are plenty of candidates around. But this doesn't mean any Chardonnay would do. Light colored versions like French Chablis from northern Burgundy with vibrant acidity, won’t have the guts to work. That’s not to say a little tartness, enough to cut through some of the richness of the dish, is desirable. But what we are looking for here is a full-bodied Chardonnay with enough stamina to accommodate the earthiness of the escargot and the herbal butteryness of the sauce.

If you’re a purist and want to carry on the French connection, go to southern Burgundy, the birthplace of Chardonnay. Classic white Burgundy from south of Beaune has ripe pear and apple fruit balanced with soft acidity and minerality. If you can afford a Puligny Montrachet so much the better, but there are many affordable wines simply labeled ‘Bourgogne’ that would go well with this rustic dish. And look to the lesser-known Burgundy villages like Saint Veran or Auxey Duresses or the Maconnais region further south.

Antonin Rodet 2001 Bourgogne “Vielle Vignes” - $12

Prosper Maufoux 2001 Viré-Clesse - $14

Georges Duboeuf 2001 Pouilly Fuisse - $18

Ten to fifteen years back we could never have recommended many California Chardonnays for this dish. Many were so heavily oaked that they overpowered even the smokiest of foods. But times have changed. While still retaining inherently deep fruit elements that’s a result of the warm climate, they’re now better balanced, elegant and more food friendly. Look for Napa’s lush Chardonnays with tropical and baked apple tart flavors. And to the west, Sonoma offers equally luxuriant wines often with a restrained earthy structure.

Sebastiani 2001 Chardonnay, Sonoma, California - $15

Murphy-Goode 2001 Chardonnay, Sonoma County, California - $16

St. Clement 2002 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California - $18

Freemark Abbey 2002 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California - $21

Five Rivers Ranch Chardonnay, Monterey County, California - $15

There’s a ton of American and French know-how and money pouring into South America. In Argentina, 2002 was a superlative year and this vintage is beginning to trickle into the market. South America’s Chardonnays are loaded with clean ripe fruit and are so reasonably priced. And of course it’s impossible to ignore Australia.

Catena 2002 Chardonnay, Argentina - $12

Cousino Macul 2002 Antiguas Reserve, Chardonnay, Chile - $12

Hope 2002 Hunter Valley Chardonnay, Australia - $12

Kirralaa 2002 Chardonnay, South East Australia - $17

Several of New England’s richer Chardonnays would work well too.

Wölffler 2001 Estate Selection Chardonnay, Long Island, New York State -$20

Chamard 2000 Estate Chardonnay, Connecticut - $15

Side bar

The accoutrements of cooking and eating escargot

The accoutrements that go with classic Escargot Bourguignonne are the cooking/serving plate, the tiny two-pronged fork to pull the snail out of the shell and the "tongs" to hold the shell steady. There are two types of escargot plates. One has six shallow indentations and is for "escargot in the shell." The other is for escargot "without the shell" and the six indentations in the plate are deeper. In both cases the escargot are served in the plate they are cooked in.

Canned escargot is readily available in specialty stores and in most supermarkets. The shells are sold separately. Although the U.S. imports most of it's escargot, and not only from France, escargot farming is gaining popularity in the U.S. Fresh snails (live or frozen) are difficult to find and are sold mostly to restaurants. If you demand fresh snails you just might have to start your own snail farm in your backyard. R.V "Dick" Johnson, a heliculturist is prepared to help you on your way with a start-up kit and a how to video. www.frescargot.com.

The etiquette of eating escargot? Just don't put the tongs on your nose like Lucy did!