There was, long ago, a wonderful Italian store in New Paltz called Toscani’s.
It was an aromatic miracle just to walk in the door (and good luck getting in at Christmas and Easter) – dozens of salamis, hot and sweet soppresatas, and cheeses, pungent pecorinos and smoked scamorze, hung from the rack above the counter, bowls of freshly-made mozzarella sat just below them, huge coils of fresh sausages – hot, sweet, luganega – rested in the glass-fronted cabinet they share with a vast assortment of cold-cuts and cheeses from around the world. Just inside the door were bins of semolina, dried ceci and chestnuts, and just in front of them were huge baskets filled with baccala and snails, dry in their shells.
The latter were too hard to resist. We bought a few dozen of them, and brought them home, in fervid anticipation of garlicky bliss.
We knew that the time for that bliss was at least a day away, and that certain steps had to be taken first. Before the snails could be cooked, they had to be cleaned, and before they could be cleaned, they had to be revived.
The snails that appeared to be dry and dead were merely dormant, in a kind of suspended animation, waiting for conditions that were more to their liking. And what they liked was moisture. We wanted them to be happy, so we gave them a refreshing rinse and placed them in a large white enamel soup pot, and set it on the floor, out of the way, loosely covered with the pot’s lid.
All the usual things, dinner, dessert, and such, went by and we went to bed – where dreams of Burgundian pleasures wafted us away to sleep.
During the night, Brother (our prototypically-curious cat) knocked off the lid off the pot to see what we might have left there for him. Apparently he didn’t see anything that interested him, and our gastronomically-induced dream-state prevented us from hearing the sounds of his investigations.
The next morning, we woke to find the lid on the floor, the pot empty (save for some fishy-smelling water), and snails everywhere in the house. We spent much of the following few days picking them off furniture, walls, windows, and ceilings.
Some ancient Gallic instinct must have warned them to steer clear of the stove. Nor did we find any near the butter dish or the garlic.
Escargot à la Bourguinonne
This recipe is adapted from one in Madame E. Saint-Ange’s La Bonne Cuisine, the French equivalent of The Joy of Cooking. It’s included here — not because you are likely to go to so much trouble — but so you’ll see why it’s worth it just to order the dish at a good restaurant.
4 dozen snails
1 cup vinegar
1/2 cup sea salt
for court bouillon
1 quart dry white wine
10 cups water
1 ounce sea salt
8 shallots, peeled and chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, sliced
1 large onion, piqué (peeled and studded with a clove)
1 bouquet garni (small bunch of flat-leaved parsley,
a sprig of thyme, and a bay leaf tied together)
to cook the snails
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
5 shallots, peeled and minced
pinch quatre èpices (a mixture of cloves,
ginger, nutmeg and white pepper)
for the snail butter
1 ¾ cups unsalted butter
3 ounces shallots, peeled and minced
2 ounces flat-leaf parsley, minced
1 ounce garlic, minced
1 ounce sea salt
¼ ounce black pepper, ground
pinch quatre èpices
In a large pot, cover the snails with cold water and rub the shells to get rid of any clinging dirt. Drain the water, add new water and rinse again. Repeat the process until the water shows no sign of cloudiness. Drain again.
Pour salt and vinegar on snails and stir with a wooden spoon to distribute evenly. Set aside for two hours, stirring occasionally. Wash them again in two changes of water. They’re clean when they show no traces of slime.
In an 8-quart pot, cover the snails with cold water and bring slowly to the boil, skimming to remove any scum that forms. After ten minutes, drain and rinse again. Drain again.
Add court bouillon ingredients to snails, bring to a boil then turn down to a gentle simmer. Skim yet again then cover and simmer for three and a half hours.
Remove the snails from their shells with a cooking needle, trimming off the black ends. Wash the shells and set aside, open end down, to drain out any water.
Melt butter in a pan, add snails and next four ingredients, and cook gently for five minutes (don’t let them brown). Cover and set aside.
Make the snail butter by grinding all ingredients with a mortar and pestle. This can be done ahead of time, just be sure that it doesn’t melt.
Preheat oven to 375°F.
To assemble, place a bit of the snail butter (the size of a pea) in each shell. Push one cooked snail into each shell. Plug the opening with more snail butter.
Arrange the snails in a baking dish, opening side up and leaning against each other for stability. Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top, dot with more butter, and sprinkle with wine.
Bake for seven to eight minutes, and serve while butter is still sizzling. As an appetizer, serve six snails per person.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us