Snails are one group of pests that most folks would like to
evict from their gardens forever. For us MOTHER EARTH NEWS types who
aren’t fond of chemical baits, about the easiest way to
reduce the population of these leaf munchers is to pick ’em
off the plants by hand. But what do you do with the
creatures after you’ve collected a batch? Why, you cook ’em
up, of course!
A Little Background on the Types of Snails
Now before you get queasy . . . remember that snails belong
to the phylum Mollusca which includes oysters, clams, and
other familiar shellfish — and can be used in gumbos or any
other recipes calling for such “ordinary” edibles. For
centuries escargots , as the French know them,
have been a popular European dish . … their consumption
actually dates back to the Stone Age!
Snails are believed to have been brought to America during
the nineteenth century and cultivated here as a food
source. Some of the gregarious immigrants escaped . . .
liked the climate … and multiplied rapidly. Their
descendants — which still menace our gardens today — are rich
in protein and minerals and low in calories (about 90
units per 100 grams of meat).
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, several
types of common land snails found in this country are known
to be edible. Here are the descriptions of just a few
Burgundy or Roman Snail (Helix pomatia): Its
light tan shell has a rather wide, uninterrupted spiral
Petit-Gris, Brown Garden, European Brown, or European
Spotted Snail (Helix aspersa): This one’s yellow
or off-white shell is large, rather thin, and has brown
spiral bands with yellow flecks or streaks.
Milk or Spanish Snail (Otala lactea): Its
flattened, white shell has reddish-brown bands.
Wood Snail (Cepaea nemoralis ): The shell might
be yellow, olive, or red, but it usually has one to five
How to Find Snails
As you probably already know, snails are nocturnal and
prefer to feed on tender flowers and vegetable plants
during the first half of the night. By day, the little
critters hide in cool, dark, moist places. If the weather
becomes too hot or cold, they’ll hibernate until conditions
According to connoisseurs, escargots taste best in
the fall, but they can be eaten any time of the
year. It’s wise, however, to catch only mature specimens .
. . with shells of at least one inch in diameter. Immature
snails don’t yield much meat, and their “houses” will break
easily when handled. (Be sure, too, that those you collect
are alive: The healthy specimens will withdraw into their
shells when touched.)
One simple way to gather the little beasts is to thoroughly
water an infested area at dusk. The dampness will bring the
snails out of hiding, and after waiting an hour or so you
can use a lantern or flashlight to spot your harvest. It’s
also possible to trap snails by laying boards, stones,
lettuce leaves, or citrus fruit rinds on the ground (place
’em near plants for best results). Then, all you have to do
is gather up the snails that will be hidden underneath your
“snares” early the next morning. (If any pesticides have
been used on your lawn or garden, though . . . the area
should be watered down thoroughly, and the mollusk harvest
postponed for at least six weeks.)
Once you’ve collected a supply of snails, they must be
purged of any toxic materials — and blanched before being
prepared for the table. These processes are relatively
simple, but essential. And if you’d prefer your
escargots super-tender (rather than just a mite
chewy), you may want to simmer the meat awhile, too, before
embarking on a recipe.
Shell We Dine?
When the pests –turned protein — have been cleansed, fattened, and
blanched … pull them from their shells — with a toothpick,
ice pick, nut pick, or small knife — and discard the small,
dark, fleshy coil (it’s found at the end of the snail’s
body) that connects each animal to its shell. (The dark
area is the gallbladder, and it’s bitter.) You may also
want to cut off any horny operculum at the tip of each
snail’s head. Now, rinse the meat again under cold
This is a good time to prepare a number of the prettier
shells for future use. To clean the natural “serving
dishes”, boil ’em for 30 minutes with 1/4 teaspoon of
baking soda to each pint of water. Then drain the shells
and rinse them thoroughly.
Most all European cookbooks have elaborate recipes for
snails, but here are a few simple (yet delicious!)
“food formulas” from the University of California’s
Stuffed Snail Shells Recipe
Simmer the cleaned
and blanched snail meat in salted water until tender. Then
chop up the tiny “steaks” and mix ’em with minced garlic.
Sauté in olive oil or margarine for about five
minutes. Stuff the cooked meat into a shell, seal the
opening with garlic butter, place under a broiler until the
butter bubbles, and serve the dish immediately.
(To make garlic butter . . . cream 1/2 cup of butter or
margarine, 3 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley, 2
teaspoons of minced green onions and tops, 1 clove of
crushed garlic, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of
pepper until all the ingredients are thoroughly
Fried Snails Recipe
Place your prepared snail
meat in water (to cover) seasoned with salt, bay leaf,
garlic, and parsley . . . and let the pot simmer for 10
minutes. Roll the cooked meat in fine cracker or bread
crumbs — seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder — and
then fry the escargots in hot oil until they’re
browned. Sprinkle the succulent morsels with lemon juice
just before serving as an entree or as hors d’oeuvres.
Recipe for Snails in Wine Sauce
To make three servings, combine — inside an ovenproof dish — 18
cleaned and blanched snails, 2 slices of diced bacon, 9
tiny whole onions (or 1/2 cup of chopped onion), 1 clove of
crushed garlic, 1 tablespoon of minced parsley, 1 cup of
red wine or grape juice, 1/4 teaspoon of pepper, and a
pinch of thyme.
Cover your container and bake for one hour at 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just before you dish up the delicacy, thicken it with a
butter and flour mixture . . . and serve it over toast or
Snails in Tomato Sauce Recipe
First, sauté 1 chopped medium-sized onion, 2 cloves
of crushed garlic, and 1/2 cup of diced bell pepper in oil.
Add a 1-pound can of tomatoes ( and salt and pepper to
taste), then simmer until the bell pepper is tender and the
flavors are blended. Add 1 pint of cleaned and blanched
snails and simmer the mixture for 10 minutes. When this
combination is spooned over toast, rice, or noodles, the
dish will provide from four to six mouthwatering servings.
Snail Scavengers in the Suburbs
Garden snails are superb as a “special” dinner treat or
food staple. Our supermarket sells a tin of 24 of the
delicacies for $4, and most French restaurants will
serve up a dozen for an even higher price. In our suburban
neighborhood, however, one person can gather 100 to 200 ”
escargots on the hoof” in about 20 minutes on
almost any night following a rain . .. and the pickin’s are
Good ‘N’ Healthful
Besides being delicious, snails are very nutritious . ..
the critters are good sources of both protein and glycogen
(a storage form of glucose). Better yet — since they’re
hermaphroditic — any two of the shelled animals can produce
prolifically. They’re definitely not an endangered
species (as are some sources of wild food), so you needn’t
fear that your appetite for the marvelous mollusks will
exterminate the local population.
Many cultures have held snails in high esteem. Ancient
Romans were so addicted to the “creep-alongs” that they had
farms where snails were fed on special diets of flour and
spices. Orientals and many African peoples have also long
regarded them as a staple, and — of course — the French have
made a fetish of escargots .
We’ve only had personal eatin’ experience with the common
garden snail of southern California . . . which is of the
same genus if not the same species — as the French variety.
We suspect, however, that — for cooking purposes — most land
snails are pretty much the same (of course, you should
check your local snails against a good field guide before you eat them) . . . provided you follow an
uncomplicated, but lengthy and necessary ,
You must allow a week or more for the elimination of toxic
substances from the snails’ systems (chemicals ingested
from plants which the crawlers can eat but you can’t, along
with any “snail bait” they may have encountered on their
way to your garden). Of course, any area with a large snail
population probably belongs to a non-poisoning owner . . .
but play it safe by keeping your catch for a week or two to
cleanse migrants from less “kosher” yards. (Snails travel
farther — and in less time than you might think!)
From Garden to Garlic Sauce
We put our captured creatures in a large, clean container.
(Figure between 12 and 18 snails in one two-pound coffee
can.) Then we cover the vessel with a ventilated lid and
place it in a cool, shady spot. Be sure the top is secure
enough to prevent your charges from escaping, because these
mighty mollusks can lift five times their weight while
traveling up a vertical surface, and — on the horizontal — can
pull objects 200 times heavier than themselves!
The next step is to starve your future delicacies for 48 to
72 hours. (They won’t die, but will simply expel their
waste products and go into hibernation. You can tell when
this “sleeping state” is reached, because the snails will
close the apertures of their shells with a hard, buttonlike
secretion — the operculum — which can be removed before
cooking.) After the fast, place the critters in oatmeal or
cornmeal for 10 days to two weeks . . . to fatten them up
and further clean out their digestive tracts. Your small
“livestock” may be kept for a long time if their food is
changed every other day to keep it from molding or souring.
When the crop is ready to be cooked, discard any specimens that don’t respond when touched, scrub the shells with a
vegetable brush, and drop the snails into boiling water
with a few teaspoons of salt and vinegar (and possibly a
bay leaf) added. Let ’em simmer for 10 minutes, then rinse
each individual thoroughly to remove the “slime”. Folks who
express disgust at the notion of eating a snail almost
invariably explain that “snails are slimy” . . . and
they’re correct. The shiny film is a secretion which
protects the external membranes of these former sea
creatures. And, while it’s not a “filthy” excrement in any
respect, it does create a peculiar sensation in the mouth
if it’s not completely removed.)
When you’ve rinsed to your satisfaction (you’ll be able to
tell when the slipperiness has washed away) . . . remove
each snail from its shell, cut off the dark-colored gall
(about 1/4 inch long) on its tail, and simmer the meat for
about two hours for maximum tenderness. (Remember that
simmering means cooking food at very low heat. All
protein becomes tough at high temperatures, as a few
experiments with hard-boiled eggs will demonstrate.)
At this point, your escargots can be frozen or
used immediately in a variety of ways. We prefer a sauce of
olive oil, wine, garlic, basil, tarragon, and a dash of
nutmeg. Stir an equal volume of mushrooms and snails into
this mixture, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes . . . or
stuff a few mushrooms with “mollusk meat” and broil these
for a few minutes. Either way, you’ll produce a dish so
delectable that one feels almost decadent eating it.
It’s nice to know that we can cook up a delicious snail
dinner any time we want one — by simply gathering the raw
materials along our street . . . and, apparently, we’re not
alone in our enthusiasm.
At 2:00 a.m. one recent night, Roland — armed with a bucket
and flashlight — was stopped by the local police. The men in
blue cheerfully asked him, “Are you collecting snails?”
When Roland admitted that he was, they drove on.
What more could one ask as evidence of the awakening
consciousness of alternative lifestyles?