Snails, those creatures of ill repute among gardeners, are good food for foragers. All the shell-housed gastropods, whether from land or sea, are edible, though some are too small to be of culinary interest. No need to buy them ready-cooked in a can for reheating with garlic butter when supplies are available live and for free.
As for the need to starve ‘em before you cook ‘em, it’s not the snail itself that is the problem, it’s what it might have eaten — the contents of the cloaca, the little black curl of intestine you find at the end of the creature’s body when, once cooked, you winkle out of its shell. So, unless you’re perfectly sure you know what your snails have eaten, the contents of the digestive tract must be evacuated (to put it daintily) to ensure the removal of anything nasty or toxic. Once properly starved, they’re ready to cook in any way you please.
No need for complicated recipes, as I learned when I lived in the Languedoc in southern France. In spring, around this time of year, my farming neighbor, a man who brewed his own walnut liqueur in a bathtub as of ancient right, gathered descendents and relatives of the Romans’ prized Helix pomata from patches of woodland where they rushed up broom twigs when it rained just before dawn (and dropped down again just as swiftly). On the way home, he dropped his gatherings onto young leaves in his vineyard — an effective method of controlling the diet. After a week or so, he gathered them up and popped them on the hearth fire to roast like chestnuts as an appetizer before the Sunday pot-au-feu. Snails’ rights were never an issue in the French uplands.
In Spain, two snail varieties are eaten. One, harvested in the cold months, is much like the Burgundy snails eaten by my neighbor in France (me too, once I knew how to gather the crop), while the other, no bigger than a thumbnail, is harvested and eaten only in summer. The former thrives in the rice paddies of Valencia, where it’s a traditional ingredient in a paella or prepared in a tomato-based sauce. The latter is gathered from dried-out thistles in the sun-baked fields of Andalucia and cooked in a clear, peppery broth with pennyroyal, a mint variety always found in proximity. Winter snails hibernate to escape the cold and summer snails estivate to escape the heat, so both are conveniently self-starved when gathered fresh from the wild. Nevertheless, both need a period of starvation — three to four days to a week depending on size — to ensure they’re safe to eat. Both varieties are popular tapas in rural ventas, particularly in the south.
From mid-June to mid-July, in the days before the Costas became a serious source of tourist dollars and people still gathered wild food to supplement their crops, women and children in the valley in which I’d set up home with my young family set off on the Sunday outing in the thistle pastures armed with plastic buckets and stout sticks. The snails chose the prickly thistle skeletons to protect themselves from predators; goldfinches love them. The reward for an afternoon’s painful cropping — it wasn’t only the birds that found the prickles daunting — was a bucketful of beautiful little cream-colored mollusks exquisitely patterned in brown, the raw material of a weekly feast. As a precautionary measure, we lidded the bucket and left it under a heavy weight for three to four days (snails being surprisingly muscular when working in concert), washing out the gunge each day. Then, under instruction from our fellow gatherers, we scrubbed the snails with rough sea salt from the Cadiz salt flats, rinsed them thoroughly between each salting and cooked them in broth with spices — the correct proportion of which was supplied, given the right information, by the spice lady in the corner of Algeciras’ weekly market.
When gathering snails from gardens or wilderness, avoid anywhere that might have been sprayed with weed killer and don’t pick from anything painted — fences and so forth — that might contain lead. The starvation method described above can be applied to snails of any size, bearing in mind that the bigger the snail, the longer it’ll take to empty its digestive system. After these preliminaries, the snails can be cooked in a flavored broth of your choice before preparation in any sauce or dressing you please.
Caracoles en Caldo (Snails in Pepper Broth)
Small- and medium-sized snails are particularly suitable for this simple method of cooking. The leisurely process of snail consumption, one of Andalucia’s many pasatiempos, is an opportunity for conversation, friendship and enjoyment. Beer is the usual accompaniment, and eating with anything but your fingers would be ridiculous.
Serves 8 to 12
- Once your snails have been starved and have evacuated all their gunge over a week (less if self-starved through hibernating or estivating), salt the snails to make them froth, then wash them thoroughly. Continue five changes of fresh water, salting in between each rinsing and rubbing off as much of the frothy gloop as possible.
- When the water runs clear and the snails are no longer producing much froth, transfer them to a roomy saucepan. Add enough cold water to cover to a depth of a finger’s width.
- Heat the water gently to encourage the snails to pop their little heads out, which makes them much easier to pick out later. Increase the heat until the water boils.
- Lift off the foam as it forms with a little bundle of the pennyroyal. Add the vinegar and the foam will subside.
- Meanwhile, singe the whole head of garlic on the point of a knife over a flame till the paper cover blackens and the cloves inside are a little caramelized. Drop the whole head into the pot.
- Add the peppercorns, de-seeded chilies, roughly crushed coriander seeds and fennel stalks or seeds to the pot and drop in the mint bundle and bring back to a boil.
- Turn down the heat and simmer for 50 to 60 minutes, adding boiling water as necessary.
- Taste and add salt.
- Ladle the snails and their broth into tumblers, as they do in the rural ventas of Andalucia, with a cocktail stick to winkle out the shy ones. If all the mollusks have already poked their heads out, nip them out with your teeth.
When you’ve finished — snail eating is meant to be time-consuming — drink the dark peppery broth for the good of your health. Store leftovers in the fridge and reheat as often as you like.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Illustration credit: Elisabeth Luard