Snails are such delightful little beasts, especially when they come sizzling out of the oven, redolent of garlic, just waiting to be downed with a bottle of cold Chablis.
That, at least, was the image working on my salivary glands last summer as I was driving down to spend a month at a converted mill near Chablis. Ah – Burgundy snails, trout in the mill race, and plenty of Chablis to take care of them both.
Will, I caught – or rather poached – one undersized trout and spent half a week soaked and scratched stumbling through dew-soaked underbrush, pushing brambles and buses aside with a stick to look for snails to drop into a plastic diaper bag.
At last there were two dozen fat snails and I thought I was ready to go. Not quite. They had to be starved for an additional 48 hours to be sure they had digested any noxious plants they might have been nibbling on. Seems they are immune to a lot of things that can kill a mere human.
While waiting for my captives' digestive system to do its work, every morning my two-year-old son slashed at the weeds with the abandoned stick, diaper bag over the other arm, crying out, "'cargot! 'cargot!"
Gathering the escargots turned out to be the easiest part of it – that and regathering them after an escape one night when all 24 of them got together and pushed off the cast-iron casserole which covered the pot they were in.
Lack of speed was all that kept them from making it into the grass before morning. Their determination to avoid culinary execution so impressed me that I was tempted to let them go, but then I began to think about what I had gone through to catch them, the preparations for cooking them already under way and the stock of fine Chablis awaiting their demise. Sentimentality be damned. Back they went into their pot.
The next part began taking my appetite away again. After washing, the snails had to be soaked in salted water laced with vinegar and flour to rid them of their slime. Two hours later the bucket they were in was a mess. They then had to be removed, rewashed and blanched for five minutes in boiling water.
This brought on even more slime, congealed and tough as rubber, that had to be removed by hand as the snails were removed from their shells and thrown into a potent court bouillon of Chablis and stock fortified with carrots, onions, shallots, bay leaves, parsley and thyme, to boil for another four hours.
Meanwhile, with the windows and doors wide open to let out the smell – and that's putting it mildly – of cooking snails, the shells had to be boiled with soda to cleanse them. Once the snails had cooled in their cooking liquid it was time to stuff them and the sun was setting.
The previous day my wife had made a veal stew, the broth of which served to cook the snails. Now I reduced about a cup each of veal broth and Chablis premier cru with shallots and parsley until there were only a couple of tablespoons left.
A few drops went into each shell followed by the snail. During the cooking I had prepared the snail butter with finely chopped shallots, crushed garlic, chopped parsley and salt and pepper. While the oven was heating and I was sealing in the snails with this preparation, a horrible thought crossed my mind – what if my escargots à la chablisienne don't turn out?
They did, however. The result was worth every bit of the effort, and the Chablis grand cru that accompanied them, Les Clos '66, didn't hurt. But somehow I don't think we will take our next vacation near Chablis.
For those who like snails as much as I do but are not about to go through what I did, they can do what I have ever since – buy them at La Maison de l'Escargot, 79 Rue Fondary, Paris 15e. Closed Mondays and from July 15 to August 31.
The snails there are delicious and are prepared (except for the smelly cooking) before you. The best are the more delicate gros gris rencoquillés, which means they are put into larger Burgundy shells to allow more room for the butter stuffing, whose preparation remains a jealously guarded secret I have no intention of trying to discover.