For most of the world, eating snails is particularly difficult to understand, if not a revolting prospect. Yet the prestige of French cuisine is such that dining on snails has become one of the pinnacles France’s culinary delights. You might wonder how this came to happen?
The term “escargots de Bourgogne” literally means Burgundy snails. Many people believe that this means that the dish is made of snails specifically from the Burgundy region, which is, by the way, a region of France teeming with culinary traditions and unique dishes. The reality is otherwise and pertains to an event that took place in Burgundy. The first emissary and diplomat of the Emperor of France (Napoleon I), Prince Talleyrand, had a meeting with the Tsar of Imperial Russia, Alexander I, in 1814, in a restaurant in Burgundy. As they both arrived late, the establishment had been cleaned out by its clientele and had nothing left to propose. The restaurant’s chef saw the snails in his garden, and decided to use them as meat, improvising a stuffing made of parsley, garlic and butter. The recipe was born, but it was only officially published in 1825 by Borel in his New Dictionary of Cuisine.
Even though Burgundy is traditionally abundant with snails, the species Helix pomatia, (common big snails) can be found in many other regions, and other European countries. Today they are mostly grown in farms. The other species used is called Petit Gris, literally meaning “little grey”, and, as the term says, it is quite smaller than the other.
Last but not least, snails are a very common resource in France, and eating them when they are cooked and prepared is both delicious (who can resist garlic, butter and parsley flavours?) and safe. But beware of ingesting raw snails, or any mollusk in fact. These invertebrates are often bearers of infectious parasites that can lead to extremely severe injuries to the nervous system, and even death. There have been cases of people who were oblivious to the danger and, eager to impress their companions with their culinary audacity, flaunted and consumed raw snails, only to expire weeks later of infection of their brain caused by parasite worms!
Knowing this history, one might ask: who would be crazy enough to eat raw snails? For those of you who ask, consider asking the same question from those who adore steak tartare. True, eating raw snails and raw beef do not present the same level of risk. But there is definitely risk in both. And in other delicacies, as well. For example Mozart is believed by some to have died of trichinosis contracted from a terrific appetite for under-cooked succulent pink pork chops. That, however, is a story from annals of Austrian cuisine, not French.