SNAILS have been eaten for centuries – Romans in particular are renowned for having regarded them as a luxury food, and they are best known today as a common dish on many French menus.
Snails, or escargot, may not appeal to everyone, but the French favourite is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. If you source good-quality snails and follow a simple, classic French recipe, this wonderful, natural ingredient can make for a truly delicious appetiser, starter or light meal.
We recently had snails on our menu at the restaurant as a special – sautéed snails served with snail and herb ravioli, girolles, garlic and parsley – and the seasonal dish proved a real hit with our diners.
I remember when I was working in top restaurants in Paris and London. When I went home for Christmas I wanted to share what I was doing in these world-renowned eateries and impress my family. I prepared snails one year as part of our Christmas meal. My family were less than impressed, as the preparation was a long process, and pleaded for a traditional festive dinner. But when it came to eating the snails they were all pleasantly surprised and thoroughly enjoyed them.
These days, I source my snails from Devonshire, from a small company called South West Snails. It is one of the very few snail farms in the country. The snails are reared in a natural environment and fed on a cereal-based diet, supplemented with thyme, marjoram and parsley. As a result, the snails have a delicious earthy, herby, natural flavour and taste outstanding when they are cooked until tender and succulent.
Preparing the snails for cooking can be a very lengthy process, and I would recommend you source them from an expert who knows exactly how they should be farmed and prepared. The advantage is that the snails are reared indoors, so there’s no grit to be removed. When we order them, they are also washed four or five times before they arrive at the restaurant so they are completely clean. You can select them fresh or frozen, ready for cooking, then the preparation can be quite simple.
In France, many regions have their own local snail recipe, complementing the creatures with a whole range of herbs and spices – from the widely used garlic and parsley to the more unusual spices, cloves and nutmeg in Gascony, aioli in Laungedoc and even flour, ham and sugar in Montpellier.
I like to serve snails with parsley or girolles, which both balance out the richness of the meat. The best way to serve them is very simply, as nature intended, so you can fully appreciate their earthy flavour. The first step is to create a court bouillon, which is a flavoured liquid for cooking, though it doesn’t require as long a cooking time as a rich and complex stock. You can then take the snails from their shells and place them in the stock. The key is not to let the liquid boil as this will make the snails tough and chewy rather than tender and silky, which is how you want them.
One of the most renowned recipes, and one you will often find if you’ve tried snails in a restaurant is escargots à la bourguignonne. After preparing the snails in the court bouillon, they are smothered in a delicious butter with garlic, shallots and parsley and then popped back into their shells. If you’re trying this recipe, the key is to chop the garlic, shallots and parsley very finely and make sure they are all mixed well together. You only need to give them enough time in the oven for the butter to melt, and if you serve them immediately, when they are still hot, they just melt in your mouth and you get a delicious sensation from the earthy, silky snails matched with the flavoursome butter.
For some, it may be the thought of eating snails that holds them back, but you never know until you try them – and I really recommend you do. Not only can they be incredibly tasty, snails are in fact a relatively cheap ingredient and are packed with protein.
Roast bone marrow with snails and parsley salad
I serve this dish with a parsley salad, which balances the richness of the bone marrow and the snails. Andrew Hogg, of South West Snails, is our supplier. His snails have been washed four or five times in the week before they arrive at the restaurant so their digestive systems are completely cleaned out.
1kg organic snails
200g girolles, cooked
2 marrow bones, each 10cm long, spilt lengthwise
1 tsp butter
1 tsp marjoram leaves
1 tsp chives
2 carrots, peeled
2 celery sticks
7 star anise
5 cardamom pods, crushed
1 tsp fennel seeds
3 tbsp salt
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
10-15 garlic cloves, peeled
35ml whipping cream
Shallot and parsley salad
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked from stems (use stems for stock)
2 shallots, sliced into rings
1 tsp capers
1 tbsp olive oil
To make the stock and cook the snails
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Peel and chop the carrots and onions and add them to the pan with the rest of the stock ingredients. Bring back to the boil.
Add the snails, lower the heat to medium and simmer for four to five hours until the snails are tender. Don’t let the liquid boil as that will make the snails tough.
Once the snails are cooked, leave them to rest in the stock, off the heat, for another hour. Remove them from the shells with a skewer and separate the edible sections from the intestines. Throw the intestines away and set the snails aside.
To make the chlorophyll
Place the parsley and 1.5 litres of water in a blender and blitz for five minutes, until very smooth and green. Strains though a fine sieve and pour the strained liquid into a saucepan. Throw away the leftover pulp in the sieve.
Slowly heat the liquid over a low flame until a soft raft forms as the green particles start to cling to one another. Skim this mixture into a muslin-lined sieve and let it drain for 30 minutes. Gently squeeze our any excess moisture.
Scrape off as much green paste (chlorophyll) from the muslin as you can and discard the liquid. Put the chlorophyll
in the fridge for later.
To make the garlic sauce
Bring a pot of water to the boil and quickly blanch the garlic. Refresh in a bowl of iced water, then repeat the process twice more to ride the garlic of any bitterness. Put the garlic in a pan with the whipping cream and simmer until very tender.
Transfer the garlic and cream and cream to a blender and blitz for at least five minutes. To finish the sauce, add salt and a teaspoon of the chlorophyll paste. Mix until the sauce is deep green in colour
To make the salad
Mix the parsley leaves, shallots and capers in a bowl. Toss with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Snails with ravioli
20 snails (five per portion)
1 tbsp garlic and
2 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp shallots, chopped
To cook the marrow bones and snails
Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas 6. Season the cut side of the bones with salt and pepper. Place them on baking tray and roast for eight to ten minutes, until golden and bubbling.
To make the pasta
Place the flour in a bowl. Then, in a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and olive oil together. Slowly add the egg mixture to the flour, little by little, working it together with your hands.
Once all mixture has been added, place the pasta on to a table top and knead hard with your hands. Wrap the pasta in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.
To cook the snails, heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the snails. Cook for three to four minutes, until the snails are crispy all over, and season well.
Add the girolles to the pan and cook until any liquid in the pan reduces. Then add the chopped garlic and parsley and the chopped shallots. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
Set aside three snails and a teaspoon of girolles for each ravioli. Keep the remaining snails to one side as they will be used to dress each plate.
Roll out the pasta until you have several thin sheets. Brush each sheet with water and place three snails and a teaspoon of mushrooms on parts of the pasta sheet. Then place another sheet of pasta on top.
With a pasta cutter, cut out each ravioli. Blanch the ravioli in boiling salted water for two to three minutes, then remove from the water and brush with olive oil to stop the ravioli from sticking together.
Warm up the remaining snails and place in the middle of each plate, then place the ravioli on top.
Meanwhile, warm the garlic sauce and set aside. Heat a medium-sized frying pan and fry the snails in butter until golden and crisp. Add the marjoram, chives and shallots, and season with salt and pepper. Sauté the girolles.
Place a piece of cooked marrow bone in the centre of each plate. Swirl garlic sauce around it, add some snails and girolles and top the marrow with shallot and parsley salad.
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