The thought of Snails in food culture, if we were to ask practically anyone, is inherently considered a solely French interest, as the eponymous “Escargot.” And yet these adorably skin-crawling critters have been found to have ancient culinary use in multiple Mediterranean societies, particularly those of Roman and Cistercian focus. For those in the know, both of these regions and cultures have great acclaim as some of the biggest influence in the development and, most important, spread of grape vines through trade and travel. We could likely theorize that it was through these same journeys that the use and taste for snails spread from the Mediterranean to France.
Here they’ve found a stronghold in a certain Burgundian recipe, simply baked with garlic-herb butter. Whether the growing environment was ideal or the regional dish was lucky enough to explode in popularity, the fact remains that Escargot de Bourgogne has become the global example for cooking snails. In fact, of the two most common type of snails eaten today, the variety known as “Escargot de Bourgogne” stands at the forefront (the other is known as Petite-Gris, or “little grays”).
They’re certainly a scary thing to think about eating for those not-so-epicurious, especially if they haven’t had it yet. But believe me, same with any offal meat, if you have one that’s prepared properly, and don’t think hard on what it is before murder and fire, this tender and buttery-delicious dish can be a sending from heaven. So put your fears in the back seat and let’s cook something odd.
A Word On…
Snails:Really the only important thing in this highly simplistic French classic… and we can’t even get it over here. Well, not the Fresh and still-alive ones anyways, or at least not without some serious digging. What we DO have is a choice: canned or frozen. Pre-cooked and pre-purged (they’re diet makes them naturally quite toxic if eaten without purging), it takes the major effort of the lengthy and important snail prep away, but then again we also lose the joy and better flavors of cooking something from fresh. Oh well.
Canned is probably the better way to go. Frozen one has to of course worry about damages during defrosting; not to mention that all frozen escargot I’ve found already come “pre-stuffed” with a butter I’m sure isn’t quite as good as what we can make at home, not to mention it takes away the one thing that we can make by hand. If you’re lucky, you can find a canned version that comes with a tube of empty shells like I did at a special seafood shop. Funny story, at first I thought all the shells were already filled, and the can on the bottom was just a label; then I found out otherwise.
If, somehow, you can find still-alive snails to work with, there are some very special considerations that need to be taken into consideration. To keep it simple, here’s what needs to be done. Fast/Starve them for at least one day, up to 3 is best (if you want to feed them, use thyme and other flavorful herbs). Rinse and Cover with Salt and Vinegar for 3 hours. Rinse again, boil in shells 10 minutes ish. Remove from the shells, then boil and sanitize the empty containers. Rinse snails again, removing a black part at the end of the tail. Simmer snails slowly in a flavorful liquid for about 1-2 hours, until tender. Drain, pat dry, and use.
See? So much more work than rinsing canned snails off in water.
Cooking:Traditionally this is a dish “a la Bourguignonne,” the most famous and commonly seen version of snails, simply stuffed with the garlic-herb butter in its shell and baked. There are other ways to cook these snails though; the Bordelais (Bordeaux region) with “stew” piles of in-shell creatures in a broth of wine, herbs, and stock, sometimes tomato-based. If one has the time, interest, and resources, they should look into playing around with it (I just might).
People don’t always have access to snails with shells, as mentioned earlier with most pre-cooked, canned versions we can get. My suggestion is simple, toss the meaty buggers in an open baking dish/casserole, cover in enough butter to submerge and bake until it’s all melted and sizzling.
Which is something to diverge off of. I’ve found, even in shell, there is no such thing as a set cooking temperature or time; from 350F to 450F, the only set rule is that it should bake in an over until all butter is melted, bubbling, and you’re sure the snails are hot.
Compound Butter:Basically, any butter mixed with seasoning, aromatics, etc. The traditional compound for this dish, as mentioned, consists of lotsa Garlic, some Shallots, and Parsley; a couple recipes I’ve found also include Brandy or a bit of White Wine.
The main consideration here is how these are all combined; usually this is done by hand or with electric mixer. However, we want to get all these herbs and garlic pulsed fine and thoroughly, thoroughly blended into the butter. If it’s strong enough, a Food Processor works well for this; normally this would be where I wax and wane over my handy-dandy-tiny-processor, but it’s sadly not sharp or strong enough to shred those herbs and garlic up into the paste I need. As such, if you’re in a similar situation or just don’t have a processor, make sure that these ingredients are chopped VERY fine for the ideal butter.
Also, don’t be afraid to make a big batch! Make sure you have enough to stuff into the shells, and if there’s leftover just roll it up in a little bundle and store in the freezer for later use; it’s great on top of a freshly grilled steak, or pushed under the skin of a chicken that’s about to be roasted. Or just more snails.
Baking Dish:Cooked in-shell, these garlicky baked snails are known for being baked and served in a special “casserole,” a baking dish with semi-spherical holders (sorta looks like a takoyaki grill… or those pans that make spherical pancakes). Obviously not everyone has one of these, and I think it’d be ridiculous to buy one just for this use (unless you do indeed eat snails relatively often, and if so GOOD FOR YOU!!). One could probably just crowd them tight together in a regular casserole or baking tin without issue. I refer the use of a muffin tin, thus giving each shell its own holder. If only it would look as pretty to serve in, but oh well, nothing wrong with snails on a plate (Lamest. Movie Ripoff Name. Ever. But the most delicious though).
1 small head or ½ large head Garlic
½ Bunch Fresh Parsley
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) Unsalted Butter, softened
3 Tb Brandy (Cognac preffered)
1-2 Tb White Wine
Salt and Pepper
Cooked and Prepared Snails + Shells
- Finely, finely mince Shallots, Garlic, and Parsley and much as possible. Note: a tip for the Parsley is to run it under water first, damp with paper towel and then proceed to de-stem and chop. It’ll stick together and mince easier. Will need to squeeze out some excess water though.
- If you have one that’s strong enough, combine everything besides the Snails in a food processor, blending until the aromatics are chopped fine and fully incorporated. Note: if this step applies, you don’t need to chop the aromatics so finely in the first step, just roughly.
- If no (strong) Processor is available, combine aromatics, Butter, Brandy, Wine, and a healthy seasoning of Salt and Pepper in bowl, mixing thoroughly until fully incorporated (electric mixer helps).
- Transfer to container or roll into log via plastic wrap and store for later use.
- Remove from fridge at least an hour before ready. Turn over to 400F once close.
- While it’s still somewhat firm, stuff the Empty Snail Shells with at least ½ tsp of thecompound butter, pushing towards the back.
- Prepare Snails as needed. Push deeply into the snail shells.
- Scoop big wads of the softened butter up and into the shells, topping the meat with a smoothed out later.
- Transfer shells to an escargot baking tray or, more available, muffin tin. Place in Hot oven and cook until ready.
- Once butter is melted, bubbly, and snails are heated through, about 12-15 minutes ish, remove and serve.
- Plate up with warm, crusty pieces of baguette and tiny forks.
I think I needed a lot more butter, these guys should be “swimming” in it. Other than that, the flavor was delicious as expected, not as garlicky as I thought (and somewhat hoped) but it was noticeably present and didn’t overpower anything so that’s a plus. Eaten with the baguette it filled its role that evening as a very satisfying appetizer. Oh, and it wasn’t chewy or anything, so the snails used were of good quality. Overall very enjoyable and delicious.
Would love to try handling my own fresh snails sometime though… now just have to figure out how to get me some.
Primary Pairing – Aligoté
A surprisingly spot-on revelation from the Buzzfeed team! And for such a seemingly unknown grape, those aware of it all know of the awesome pairing it makes with some select Burgundy dishes, such as a jellied ham thing and of course these garlic-butter-baked-snails.
Though Burgundy is known for peppering their slopes with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Aligote grape is still seen in certain environments; usually on the higher, colder elevations where quality Chard won’t grow (aka it’s relegated to the crappy terroir). As such, it’s historically known to be grown along the same terroir as their black currant bushes, and Kir was born. The classic cocktail is mainly considered nowadays to be a mix of Champagne and Crème de Cassis (product of those same currants), but in reality Aligote wine is the first and proper ingredient to mix with the liqueur. Sharply acidic, herbs and stone fruit, with a lightly creamy body, it’s like a Chenin Blanc or Riesling only minus the noted petrol/cleaning chemical smell and crossed with a bit of Chardonnay. A good version would cut right through the thick-bodied sweetness of the cassis while lending a bit of mouth texture, all from a cheap, rustic grape that’s not seen as “fit” for drinking straight like the other Burgundy grapes.
But those in the know see it otherwise, and this fella, when done right, leads to a delightful and fun little mouthful of tart deliciousness. The same qualities that made it great for cocktail also lends it to eating with this garlicky, butter-rich dish; if anything one could add that both have a bit of a “uniqueness” in flavor, one being the oddly seafood-y snail and the other being the somewhat malolactic-chenin-reminiscent wine. Whatever the reason we can ponder, the fact they’ve both worked for decades is solid.
Due to its not-so-esteemed status in Burgundy, there aren’t really any specific “regions” that make it, except for one: Bouzeron, located in the Côte Chalonnaise and known for being the only all-Aligote wine AOC in Burgundy. It makes fantastic versions of it, though sadly can be somewhat tricky to find (though I do know we get bottles of it in Minnesota, just not sure where yet), and can end up a bit pricey. It is an area-specific wine in Burgundy, afterall (still better priced than a Gevrey, Santenay, Pomerol, Chambolle-Musigny, or any other one, but still).
So most of the time you’ll have to find a general Bourgogne AOC, where the grapes are picked from wherever along the long region (likely from the southern areas not counting Beaujolais, where it’s more likely to be grown in mass). Luckily for us, there are still some non-Bouzeron focused winemakers that put their attention into making decent quality, drinkable Aligote, and Jean-Claude is one of them (at least he seems like it, this particular glass was quite num). The glass came out nice and crisp, cutting through the butter, followed by a certain Burgundian chardonnay-reminiscent fullness that makes me think it either had a small amount of Malolactic Fermentation applied (the process that makes those really Buttery chards) or had spent time in old oak barrels before bottling. Amazing, no probably not, but it went great alongside the garlicky-herb food, crunchy bread, and as glass to gulp down after the meal. So if you find yourself in Haskell’s like me and they only have 2-4 bottles, none of them from Bouzeron, I can safely say that THIS bottle is very satisfying and works well. If they don’t have it, then… good luck!
Did you know there’s more sparkling wine in France outside of Champagne? Though since they can’t call it Champagne, the French had to settle on a different designation, and the lusciously tempting name of Cremant was born, to be attached to all other region’s name for their bubbly (Cremant d’Alsace is particularly well made).
The same concept is applied to their Brandy. Though we all, of course, are much familiar with Cognac and its sister region Armagnac, but only distilled and aged grape alcohol made in these regions can use the names. And there are so many other wineries throughout the country that make interesting Brandies, often out of “leftover” grapes that aren’t suited for their regular wine (and who wants them to be when you can make this?). These brandies are referred to as “Fine,” a suitable name consideration the levels of succulence and playful creativity one can find in these not-as-restricted brandies.
I love pairing fun and quality spirits with food, especially such simple and strong-flavored dishes like the escargot. A younger Fine, with some grainy oak flavor, that hint of maderization via the distilling action, and strong but simple flavors (usually some sort of cooked stone fruit or something) would pair nicely with this garlicky goodness, served in a small aperitif glass to sip and savor.
Give it a try, Fine de Bourgogne if you can (Burgundy particularly makes good ones), or any other non-Cog/Armagnac Brandies.