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Snailing in France

Lurking in the grass of the lush green hills of the Monts du Forez in Central France are a gastronomic icon. Making their way slowly through the fields are thousands of escargot. Their pale shells disguising them as mere stones or small rocks, they innocently munch on grass, not knowing that it will soon be the 1st of July – the beginning of the snail season.

Many a tourist has daringly eaten a meal of escargot “just for the sake of it”. When in Paris do as the Parisians. Smoke a Gitane, quaff a glass of red with your Camembert as you sit in a little bistro near the Metro. It’s just something you do. I was not counting on snail eating as the highlight of my time in France, but I was honored by being be allowed to join in a “snailing” expedition.

My father-in-law is typical of a lot of French country folk – if you can eat it, and it roams the fields or grows in the forests near your farm, then go forth and gather. Food always tastes better when you don’t have to pay for it. The freezers were full of berries and mushrooms, all gathered throughout the year during one of many expeditions into the forests.

I had never given much thought as to where escargot came from but I was about to find out.

One fine morning, while sitting at the kitchen table ready for breakfast, I was presented with a walking stick and a plastic bag. These were the snailing tools and we were off to collect snails.

It was only May and we weren’t quite legally allowed to collect them. Hence the need for a pre-trip strategy meeting. Over a mug of hot chocolate and a croissant I was told the rules. When you hear a car coming, try to look like you are out for an innocent stroll. If someone approaches hide the bag in your jacket. If they get really close then you probably know them and will have to share some snails. Of course, most folk in this region tend to go walking with a plastic bag in their pocket, and a keen eye scanning the ground for anything edible.

The snails were easy to find. Just push the long grass aside with your walking stick and voila! These snails are hard of shell and larger than our common garden snail. More robust – and all the better for eating. Nettles are also plentiful so I finished the expedition with countless welts on my hands – the sign of a true “snailer” if ever there was one.

After a few hours we had gathered about 700 snails. We were careful to keep only the ones of good size and health. The small ones were returned to the grasses. We weren’t all that worried that they would go too far before the next season began.

A bag full of snails is not particularly appetising. Preparation is another art entirely. You don’t just pop a snail in the oven and expect a meal. They are placed in a huge pot of cold water, then slowly brought to the boil. This causes the snails to exit their shells, which saves having to prise them out with a fork. They are boiled again to remove any slime and dirt and then bagged in dozen lots. During this process I was on “snail watch”, keeping an eye on the live snails that continually tried to escape from their bucket as they awaited their turn in the pot.

Needless to say, we ate snails that night. Snails are served from a special ceramic dish with a moulded handle and 12 small hollows, somewhat like an egg poacher. A snail is put in each hollow and covered with a fragrant herb butter containing a mix of parsley, garlic, and chives. They bake in the oven for a few minutes, boiling in the melted butter and herb mix. You eat them with a fork and use fresh baguette to soak up the remaining butter.

Escargot tend to be eaten on special occasions as an entree. Well actually, in our family they are the pre-entree. They were one of many courses we had that day and, as usual, I could barely walk after finishing my meal.

I can’t say I have taken to escargot. In fact, I don’t think many French people know why they eat them either. I did try, and on many occasions I smilingly let them slide down my throat. Unfortunately this was taken as a sign that I really liked them, and in the end I had to reject all future offers of escargot (now I am given a slice of fois gras for my entree instead.)

It is puzzling, the appeal of escargot. A meal of tradition that is eaten all over the country with little thought to how the escargot got there in the first place.

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