Snails Move Fast in France

New York Times International Edition

Thursday, February 23, 1967

Who said that snails move slowly? Quite aside from the fact that French snails can burn up 112 meters an hour, a sizzling inch and a quarter a second, they are one of the fastest-moving items on the French food market. So fast that there are no longer enough and today "escargots de Bourgogne" are shipped in from central Europe, the Balkans and even Turkey.

They are snapped up by the dozen in every charcuterie, or delicatessen, and the heady aroma of garlic wafting invitingly out of either small restaurant or gastronomic palace usually means snails on the menu.

How anyone got the notion to eat these slimy creatures is lost in the mists of pre-history, when they first became popular. Some primitive peoples seem even to have subsisted almost exclusively on them.

By the time of the Roman Empire, snails had become one of the most refined and expensive dishes a patrician could offer his guests. They were kept in pens formed by barriers of ashes or sawdust, the only type of surface they cannot crawl on, and were fattened to enormous proportions on flour soaked in wine. The Romans were not known for their restraint at the table, yet three of these huge snails were as much as they could usually get down.

Today the two most commonly eaten species, the large light-brown Bourgogne and the striped Petit-Gris are gathered wild. Unfortunately very few come from Burgundy itself because the snails prefer to live in the vineyards and copper sulfate spraying has drastically reduced their number.

Elsewhere, despite such natural enemies as hedgehogs, toads, carbide beetles and gourmets, they seem to reproduce abundantly, if somewhat curiously. Like oysters, snails are hermaphrodites, but they cannot fertilize themselves, and have to mate. How do they decide which snail is which?

But it seems to work because there are so many of these voracious creatures that they are a formidable pest. Snails will eat almost anything with leaves, including plants such as belladonna, which have no effect on them. This is the reason they must either be gathered during their sealed-off winter hibernation or be starved for at least a week before cooking.

Preparing snails is a rather long, involved and smelly business of repeated washings and boilings. Fortunately there is really no more need to go through with it than there is to bake bread in Paris. There are veritable snail factories that supply most restaurants, charcuteries and fish shops, where they are readily available.

No matter where you buy your snails all you have to do is to bring them home, heat up the oven at top heat for 10 minutes, pop them in, turn off the heat, and remove them after nine or 10 minutes. This system prevents overheating the butter and making the snails tough and dry. Serve them at once because they lose their heat rapidly.

Any light dry white wine should go well with them. Chablis is excellent, as are vin nature de Champagne, Macon-Viré, Pouilly-Fuissé, and Savoie whites. Curnonsky, the Prince of Gastronomes, recommended Touraine whites: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy, Vouvray, Saumur, and Muscadet, and you can always have Champagne brut.