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Let's face it, we all have food that make us squirm. I have quite a few that you couldn't pay me to eat!
But escargot (es-car-GO), or snails in English, is not one of them.
So, why DO the French eat snails, a dish that is often considered one of the weird foods in France (at least weird for some)?
French people tend to have one of three relationships with snails.
#1, and you may find this hard to believe, is that of the French person who does not eat snails, either because they've tried and hated them, or because they've simply never tried them and have no desire to. This category does exist. Not a single escargot!
#2, by far the most common, is made up of those who eat snails occasionally. You'd think, given the publicity, that snails are so beloved they're even part of the typical French breakfast... But no.
Nothing could be further from the truth: the vast majority of French people who eat snails do so on special occasions, like Christmas dinner or New Year's, when it is traditional to do so.
Fresh snails are also present on many restaurant menus, so if we see them and have heard they are good in that particular establishment, we might order them.
#3, the French person who eats snails regularly, either because we like them (I say WE because I'm part of this third group) or because they are common in our region (my region, the Bugey in eastern central France, excels in plump, tasty escargots). There's even an escargot farm within minutes of my village.
Have we managed to debunk that stereotype? The one that has us chasing les escargots across the yard with a net in one hand and a frying pan in the other?
Snails are mollusks which belong to the gastropod class and, let's get it out of the way, the same class as slugs.
They've also been eaten for millennia. There are records of snails as food during the 6th century BCE among hunter-gatherers and they were much loved by Romans. Pliny called them "elite food", and remains have been found among ruins in Benidorm in Spain and Volubilis in Morocco.
The escargot origin in France, though, is a bit unclear.
Some say they may have been brought to the country by Julius Caesar as he was going about conquering Gaul, but others point to escargot fossils in Provence, long before Caesar cast his hungry eye upon Gaul.
Snails may have become less popular during the Middle Ages but here, too, there are shrouds of mystery.
Some sources say the church considered them impure, yet some monasteries were known to have snail farms, called escargotières, because snails were categorized as fish and therefore edible on Fridays. Until 1966, Catholics were not allowed to eat meat on Fridays so the snail was a welcome substitute.
What really seems to have propelled snails into France's gastronomic limelight was a visit by Tsar Alexander to Napoleon's chief diplomat, Prince Talleyrand.
According to the legend, the Imperial party stopped by a restaurant in Burgundy one day in 1814. Its chef, Antonin Carême, had nothing suitable on hand (this does seem highly unlikely, don't you think?)
Walking out to his garden, he spotted some snails and had the bright idea of serving them to the Tsar. He added garlic to "hide the taste" and parsley for colour, along with butter to assist in swallowing them.
When the Tsar returned home, he couldn't forget those "Burgundy snails" and so a new dish was born. Or not.
But there's another story, also involving Talleyrand. In this one, he is in Paris and wants to impress the Tsar by presenting him with a novel dish.
He asked his chef to prepare escargots. Initially, the chef planned to have cooked snails in wine but Talleyrand felt this wasn't sophisticated enough.
So the chef decided to prepare them Burgundy-style: with garlic, butter and parsley.
Whatever its origins, the dish became a runaway success and is now a staple in France.
So yes, I take issue with the belief that French and snails are almost synonymous.
We may be famous for cooking snails a certain way, but some countries eat far more snails than we do.
According to marketing reports from IndexBox, here's an annual snail consumption breakdown (yes, there is such a thing): the countries that eat the most snails are Spain (16,500 tonnes), Morocco (6000 tonnes), France (5300 tonnes) and Italy (2100 tonnes). Together, we account for nearly 69% of global consumption.
Clear, right? In France, we LOVE snails. But Spain and Morocco love them at least as much.
I'll tell you more about that in a minute but first, here's how I eat snails at home.
While many people in France love eating snails, some quietly admit they don't have much taste and that the entire point of a plate of escargots is... BUTTER.
Just break off a piece of bread from your French baguette, and mop that garlicky parsley butter off your plate.
It's a gesture that with any other dish would attract reproachful looks from the prim and proper table manners police, but etiquette is quickly forgotten when it comes to escargots.
This, by the way, is the Burgundy snails recipe – there are others. You can also find a French snails dish in cream with various herbs (sage is my favourite for this particular experiment), au gratin, as part of a sauce or in plenty of other ways, including sprinkled in soups or salads.
I've also seen escargots served with foie gras, and there's even such as thing as snail caviar, which is reportedly more expensive than Beluga caviar.
If you ever order escargots in a restaurant, they are usually served by the dozen or the half-dozen (a few try to ride the fence and offer 9), and are often served in their shell.
This may require a bit of dexterity because there are utensils to manipulate: a pincer of sorts, called snail tongs, a tiny two-pronged fork, and a plate with little dips in which to stabilize each escargot.
Here's a little video that should demystify the various utensils.
Snails aren't always served in their shells in a restaurant, however. Sometimes they arrive directly on a snail plate, without a shell, but frankly, scooping them out of the shell is the fun part.
They may also be served in puff pastries. If these are of high quality, this can be tasty because the butter soaks into the puff. But all too often, the pastry shells are pre-cooked, frozen and then thawed, with that slight aftertaste that comes from frozen food.
While we may like to think so, France does not hold the monopoly when it comes to escargot recipes. Curious about how the rest of the world eats them?
In Spain, they're called "caracoles" and are served in a variety of ways. One of the most popular is in bars, as tapas, where they're served with a toothpick – and are often smaller than the ones we eat in France.
I've also tried them in hot sauce – different, but good.
Lots of countries serve them with some form of tomato sauce – Portugal (caracois), Italy (lumache), Malta (bebbux) and Croatia. Or you'll find them in Southeast Asia, typically with Asian herbs or coconut milk or lemongrass. Or giant snails in Nigeria, served in a peppered sauce.
Mostly good. All different.
If you're not eating your escargots at a restaurant, you'll be eating them at home, and there are several ways to buy them.