The first time I learnt how to cook snails, it was purely theoretical. I was in my early 20s, in Provence, in June. Everywhere you looked in the sun dried landscape, the bleached shells of snails clung to stems of desiccated weeds, looking totally incongruous to a northern European eye. I was used to snails which roamed with gay abandon for most of the year, unconcerned by our weak Summer sun, sliming at will, rain or shine, plundering the best efforts of every suburban gardener. But here, in this small village outside Aix, these snails seem to have been caught unawares by spring – forced to hunker down in situ and wait for far off autumn. This lack of foresight, apparently, made them easy pickings – literally. So, first, catch your snail, that, let’s face it, is the easy part.
Now comes the prep. The problem with foraged food, is that you’ve no idea where it’s been, or what it’s been eating. It would be so much easier if snails only snacked on choice herbs – delicate thymes and fennel perhaps? But they’re not so obliging, so they need a purge. You take your gathered snails and dump them into the sink. Fill the sink with water, and leave overnight. This trick has two outcomes. When you come back to the kitchen in the morning – the first task is to look in the sink, and remove any dead snails. A bit like shellfish, if they don’t make it through the ‘are they alive’ test, then you don’t want to be eating them.
Next, gather all the living snails. Their dunking will have cleansed them of any undesirable leftovers, and they’ll have proved their vigour by helpfully escaping all over the kitchen – up the walls, on the ceiling – you name it. Now, I can’t help feeling that this method is fundamentally flawed. But the French matriarch who passed on her snail-based wisdom was adamant that this process was the only way. So who was I to argue?
And then onto the escargot – cooked in butter and garlic – your snails are transformed into the infamous delicacy of a thousand caricatures. And here’s the thing. They’re not much of a delicacy, more an oversized chunk of garlicky protein. I’ve had them from a jar; in a fancy restaurant in Lilles; freshly prepared near Poitiers, and I just don’t get escargot. They’re not unpleasant, but then neither are they a thing of wonder unleashing some sort of Proustian rapture
But then I discovered snails again, in Sicily. Here they are very much a humble food, served in summer – a bar snack to be eaten with cold beer. Or you can buy nets of them at the market, to take home and prepare yourself.
These southern, Mediterranean snails are an entirely different kettle of fish. Much like a lot of Sicilians, these snails are tiny, the size of winkles, rather than the great lumpen molluscs associated with escargot. But they have that same sun-bleached look of those long ago Provencal ones.
Prepping has its similarities too, but with a far more practical modus operandi. Big pot, filled with water and with a rim of salt just above the surface. Dunk the snails, which, being sensible creatures will attempt to climb out of the water, to avoid death by drowning. However, when they encounter the salt, they are forced to retreat to a watery demise. And the benefit of this method is that they die with their heads and necks extended, making eating much easier.
And the preparation is easy too: white wine, whole garlic cloves, parsley and then steam them in this liquor for a few minutes. Or you can go to one of those street vendors in a rough part of Palermo where they cook up a vat of the things around arpertivo. And then buy beer from the bar opposite and eat messily and noisily – sucking the little gems out of the shell, with their juices. They are sweet and moist and slip down a treat. You’ll be surrounded by mildly terrifying old men, possessing teeth in various states of decay. The conversation will routinely be drowned out by vespas whizzing past. And as is the norm in Sicily, most of the talk will be of the place you had the best snails, where you’re going to get the next snails, and what to have for dinner tonight, tomorrow and next week.