In retrospect, I only remember eating escargots (snails) once in all my trips to France. To be more specific, it was escargot. Just one escargot. Not a plateful, just one. But it was a very, very good escargot. It was dusted lightly with flour and fried so the outside was crisp and the inside was soft. There may have be some light seasoning in the flour for flavor, but the escargot was served naked on a plate as part of a small amuse-bouche. The year was 1998 and the place was a Michelin three-star restaurant in Burgundy that was then called Le Côte d’Or.
Snails are almost a paradox of French cuisine. We think of them as being one of the most recognizable symbols of cuisine française, but they are really not as ubiquitous as we imagine. They are readily available in almost any food store in France, but they usually occupy only a small amount of shelf space. Paris bistros and brasseries will often list them on their menus, usually as escargots de Bourgogne, but I cannot remember ever seeing anyone order them. But someone must be ordering escargots in the restaurants and buying them in the stores, or else they would disappear from the menus and the shelves.
The two varieties of snails most commonly found on menus and in stores are the escargots de Bourgogne (Helix pomatia) and the petit gris (Helix aspersa Müller). The petit gris are about one third the size of the escargots de Bourgogne. I have also occasionally seen the achatine variety in markets. This is a tropical variety from Africa and Asia that can grow to half a kilo in size, but is sold in France at the same size as the escargots de Bourgogne, which are normally described as gros (large) or extra gros (extra large). Once I found escargots de Bourgogne sold as size moyen (medium). The petits gris are generally sold as petits (small), but I’ve read that there is also a gros gris (Helix aspersa maxima) farmed in France.
Snails are commonly sold canned. Small cans, 200 grams gross weight, will contain either 4 dozen small, 3 dozen medium, or 2 dozen large snails. The next size up is three times larger and contains a proportionate number of snails. Canned snails are cooked in a court-bouillion prior to canning and some of the cooking liquid is packed along with the snails. The cooking liquid may be as simple as water, salt, and spices, or it may also contain some vegetable matter. Before use, the snails should be thoroughly drained and then rinsed under flowing water. The canning liquid is either discarded or reserved, depending on the recipe. If the recipe calls for small snails and all you have is large ones, the snails can be cut in half without affecting the finished recipe.
(A chef once told me a story about the time he purchased live snails and they escaped from their box in the kitchen. They were peeling rogue snails off the walls for days!) If you purchase live snails, or use some from your garden, they must be purged of any toxins by feeding them clean food, such as cornmeal, for a number of days. Then they need to be cooked for a couple of hours in stock before they may be used in most recipes.
When I started searching for snail recipes, I was surprised to find that there were none to be found in any of my very old French cookbooks. The earliest recipes I found were the five listed in Alexandre Dumas’ Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine published in 1873. There may have been earlier ones, but none that I could find in my search which included books by Dubois, Gouffé, Careme, Massialot, Varenne, and others. It is known that both the Romans and Greeks ate snails and there are a couple of snail recipes in Apicius’ 4th-century cookbook. There are, however, a large number of recipes in 20th-century books. By my observation, the most common recipe is for snails baked in garlic-parsley butter. I excluded this recipe because it — escargots au beurre d’ail — has already been published on this web site. Even excluding this recipe, I found that recipes in different sources often seemed to follow similar themes, or even duplicate each other. The following recipes have been arranged by their similarities as much as possible, yet, they are all quite different.