Snails, or in Gallic lingo - escargots, were an exotic, but not uncommon dish on 70s and 80s menus. These gastropods shone in the gastronomic spotlight – as a classic entree in any French restaurant worth its rock salt, or were proudly featured in fine dining establishments of a certain price range and aspiration. This retro-food was an eyebrow-raising choice for the adventurous and guaranteed to make your country aunt shudder and the kids freak right out.
As a young apprentice I made up thousands of these bite-sized morsels. We did them French traditional style, grilled in garlic butter, which was made thus - 50g garlic puree, 10g salt, 14ml Pernod, 350g softened butter and 50g of picked, blanched parsley. The smell this butter makes when grilled is, frankly, orgasmic.
Imported in big tins from France, the snail meat came pre-cooked. The shells were bought by the dozens from a catering supplier and reused many times. They were fastidiously cleaned as their spiral shape easily trapped butter and scraps of meat. Even so, I deeply sniffed each shell before use.
A serve of escargot comprised a blob of garlic butter in the shell, then a gently pressed-in lozenge of snail meat followed by a generous cap of more garlic butter. Placed onto special stainless steel escargots trays, they got stacked up carefully in the cold room to save space. In serves of 6 or 12 they were cooked to order, snail-side up, under the overhead grill. They weren't the most popular menu item but people who liked them - really liked them - sometimes ordering a dozen and a half as an entree. This is not as gluttonous as it sounds as a cooked snail weighs about 10g.
Consuming escargots requires scientific intent and specialised eating tackle. The shells are too hot to hold so snail shell shaped spring-loaded tongs are used. The snail, snug in its hot shell, is held in these tongs and then a two pronged fork is used to winkle out the meat.
The sensory experience of eating snails divides diners. Some say it's like eating rubber, the meat essentially tasteless; no more than a vehicle for the butter or sauce they're cooked in. Others extol the firm, pleasantly chewy texture and compare the subtle earthy flavour to mushrooms, oysters and nuts. I fall somewhere between the two camps, but as a complete sucker for garlic butter I could possibly eat rubber cooked in it.
Aside from all that butter, these tiny munchies are good for you, containing essential amino acids, magnesium, iron, zinc - even selenium. Just like MDMA, snails can make you feel groovy as they contain reasonable amounts of tryptophan, which helps your brain produce serotonin.
I miss seeing them on menus, but globally, snails have never gone out of style. Big in Spain, and in France where 40,000 metric tons of snails are consumed each year, they are farmed on a gigantic commercial scale in Poland for the appetites of Europe. In Asia they are stir fried with sake and soy, black bean or chilli sauces. Americans savour a billion escargot per annum, and here in Australia they are making a come back; if not on the plate then definitely out in the paddock. From the Tamar Valley in Tasmania to the Glasshouse Mountains of Queensland, the hills are alive with the sound of heliculturalists (snail farmers) herding, feeding and collecting their tiny livestock.
I've never been a snail wrangler, but I imagine it's not too strenuous as the average snail cruises at 0.0004 mph. Most farmed snails are Helix aspersa, or the common brown garden snail. Kept in greenhouse-sized pens or allowed to gambol as free-range gastropods, farms can carry hundreds of thousands of head - known as an escargatoire. The little critters mature at eight months and are processed by first placing them in air-conditioned induced hibernation, and then boiling them like prawns. They must be purged of impurities on a diet of clean fresh vegetables, sometimes just water, for 7 to 10 days before cooking. Feeding them herbs like Dill adds flavour. Ancient Romans, ever in pursuit of all-frills gratification, fed them meat and wine.
Farming snails is profitable. A kilo of snail meat goes for $110 and there are lucrative snail byproducts too. Their eggs, known as white caviar, are used as a garnish for snail dishes and these micro-dots of flavour sell for $20 a gram. The froth and slime produced by snails has strong epidermal healing properties, and over the last decade live snail facials and snail mucous creams have slithered into the beauty industry.
Snails are nocturnal, have terrible eyesight and a complete lack of hearing apparatus. These apparent failings, and their snail-like pace, have cemented their reputation as torpid creatures of leisure. But the truth is - they are avid slaves to gargantuan appetites. Snails can consume 40 times their body weight in food each day and indulge, as hermaphrodites, in sex sessions lasting up to 15 hours. Now that's something worth being reincarnated as!
Back in the day I worked at a venerable a-la-carte restaurant in Melbourne for a few months. The building was a beautiful two storey Victorian wrought-iron and stone mansion set in lovely old gardens. Down in the blue stone basement were two kitchen store rooms.
The Head Chef was an odd fella who never looked you in the eye or listened to what you said. He peacefully bumbled around like a failed mystic and his scattered mind was reflected in the state of the store rooms. Boxes, tins and bottles sprawled in no particular order on wooden shelves. Cobwebs hung from the low roofs and out-dated cooking gear and run-down dining chairs crowded corners. One room had several small windows near the roof which opened out at ground-level outside. Through neglect, most of the windows couldn't be closed and hung open at odd angles. Each night through these openings came snails. Lots of snails.
I guess it was a safe, dark place for them to sleep during the day, but it was off-putting to say the least, finding not only shiny trails over everything, but dozens of snails snoozing on every conceivable surface. Snails stuck vertically to walls, crashed out on the tray of a high-chair and there was even one, happy as Larry, upside-down on a dead light bulb. The surfaces of tins, boxes and bottles were scattered with gastropods catching a few zeds.
Well the restaurant was an old-school sort of a place and there were escargots on the menu. One morning the Head Chef sent me down to the store to grab some snail meat and sure enough - the tin of escargots was crowned with their living brethren. I didn't brush the snails off, took the tin upstairs into the kitchen and called the Head Chef over.
“Look at this Chef,” I said. “I don't think we can use these. The tin must be split. See - they're getting out.” The dozy bugger took me seriously, peering in open-mouthed confusion at the tin. It was the high pitched giggle of the dish pig that snapped him back into reality.