Monday, February 28, 2005

Everything you wanted to know about snails but were too afraid to ask

For thousands of years edible snails have had a place upon the menu in various European countries, but it is France we think of when someone mentions Escargot, where snails are consumed in vast quantities. (Escargot, recipes)

However, snail culture did not originate in France, for Pliny the elder tells us that a certain Fulvius Hirpinus first instituted snail preserves at Tarquinium, a Tuscan city not far from Rome.

There, the snails were kept in enclosures and fed on grain meal and boiled wine until fat enough to eat. By a combination of careful breeding, selection, and feeding--very satisfactory results were obtained.

During the expansion of the Roman Empire snail culture was introduced into the countries that came under its control. In Switzerland and in the provinces bordering on the Danube, snail farming was still being practiced during the Middle Ages.

From Ulm, in the Swabian Alps 10,000,000 snails were sent annually down the Danube to Vienna and the Austrian convents, where they were eaten under the name of fish during the season of lent.

With the ultimate demise of the cheap water transport this market was slowly lost, but the industry still persisted through many small snail farmers until a sure market was found in France during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

The introduction of the snail as a food source in France came about in a rather haphazard manner. French wine merchants who went to Burgundy each year on buying trips had to stay at the local inns where they were frequently served snails that had been gathered from the surrounding vineyards.

To them, this was an unusual but savory dish and was commented upon by the merchants when they returned to their homes in Paris. Enough interest was gradually aroused to the point where one of the coaches that traveled between Auxerre and Paris was hired to bring the first baskets of snails to the markets of the French capital.

About 1850, the trade in Burgundy of snails was greatly increased with the advent of the railroad, for they could now be transported greater distances while still fresh. In this way new markets were developed in France, Italy, and Spain. Snail farms now exist in almost every country in the world.

So how are snails prepared and processed for the market?

In preparing snails for human consumption, they must be purged on wheat bran or corn meal; rolled oats can also be used. These products have been found to be the most effective purging agents as the high percentage of roughage contained within them will hasten the process of ridding the digestive system of any soil or other food stuffs.

The snails need to be purged for a period of three days followed by two days of starvation to completely clean out their digestive system. During the starvation stage, water, via the automated watering system, is provided on a regular basis to allow the snails to continue being active and so completes the purging process. The snails are then ready for cooking.

Snail meat is an excellent source of nutrition. The meat contains very little cholesterol or fat and its composition also includes many of the vitamins and minerals required for a healthy and well balanced diet: Magnesium, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, C, traces of zinc, copper, potassium and iodine. Snail meat also contains 9 of the essential 10 amino acids needed for the human body.

Recipes for cooking snails can be counted by the hundreds from soup to pate. Some producers overseas collect the snail’s eggs and also use them as a form of caviar. The versatility of the snail meat as a component of food for the chef to incorporate into the cooking process is only limited by the imagination and availability of the desired snail product.

How the snails are fed, prepared and cooked, can alter the above described nutritional composition. For example, the liver and the hepatopancreas contain most of the vitamins and minerals and are considered by the Europeans as the most flavorful part of the snail and so in the act of processing the snail before they are canned these organs are removed and used in other aspects of the finished product.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My aunt once attempted to cook live snails for her husband. She didn't do them long enough, and they began to move. She got sick and never made them again! ;^)

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