Remember the scene in Pretty Woman where she attempts to eat an escargot and it goes flying? THEY DID NOT MAKE THIS UP! The exact same thing happened to me many years ago in Paris, at the venerable Chez l’Ami Louis, as the slippery snail became a projectile, catapulting from my tongs to sail clear across the room, blessedly not hitting anyone.
As scary as it appears at first glance, the classic French preparation of snails, baked in garlic butter, is one of life’s most delicious joys.
And it is one of the easiest things to make at home IF you do exactly what fancy French restaurants do: Open a can, rinse, make some garlic/parsley butter (or substitute olive oil), stick into shells (or not) and bake until they’re bubbly.
While there are many types of edible snails from land and sea, the most famous are the medium size European garden snails. They are grown commercially, harvested and processed, and are the mainstay for escargot lovers everywhere.
Before you start seeking them out in your back yard, beware! Wild snails may have ingested poisons, and even if they have not, require a lengthy cleansing process which can take days: fasting and/or purging with lettuce and cornmeal and/or soaking in vinegar and/or salt. Then you still have to clean and slowly poach them to tenderize and kill potential parasites.
If purchased alive, perhaps from an Asian market here (or a street market in Paris), they have to be carefully penned in, otherwise, escapees will wander off. To wit, a few quotable quotes from a website explaining the snail-from-scratch process: “Place all the snails in a well closed box” and “Place a screen or a piece of wood over the sink so you won’t be finding snails all over your kitchen.”
I encountered pretty little land snails in Sicily last summer near the ruins of an ancient Greek temple, but didn’t have the time or wherewithal to find out from locals if these ever found their way to the table as “babbaluci”.
There are snails from the sea as well, ranging from the tiny French bigorneaux which are eaten with a pin (and are close relatives of periwinkles), to the petit gris (small grey snails) to the giant conches (as in the famous Caribbean conch chowder), whelks, and even abalone. Scungilli over pasta anyone?