How Escargot Evolved From Snail Snack to Treat for the Elite

By: Stephanie Vermillion  | 

escargot
Escargot de Bourgogne, the most common way to prepare escargot, includes snails with garlic and parsley butter. South China Morning Post via Getty Images

If you've always wondered about — but never tried — escargot, you're not alone. This French delicacy's main ingredient, snail, can intimidate the everyday diner. Is it slimy? Do snails taste good? Or, first and foremost, what's even in escargot?

Let's start with the basics: Escargot originated in France and consists of snails cooked in everything from garlic butter to wine. It's delicious, highbrow fare celebrated by culinary icons around the world. You'll find the dish typically served as an appetizer, especially across Europe.

In the United States, though, escargot remains more of a novelty. Many Americans are squeamish about the idea of eating these mollusks, but according to French-trained chef Brandon Chrostowski, founder of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute in Ohio, they shouldn't be.

"It's not just a snail," he says. "You can eat it in multiple ways, and it's almost like a piece of meat, but with a little more texture to it."

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How Snails Became Highbrow Fare

Escargot may be a present-day French staple, but its roots go way, way back — upward of 30,000 years, according to Spoon University. Over time, they evolved from a snail snack to a treat for the elite, and they've remained the latter to this day.

"You had aristocrats, and even kings or masters of fiefdoms, enjoying [snail], and they became a living for the peasants and working class," Chrostowski says. "There's a certain cache that comes with people of higher stature consuming something. In the fields or in people's homes, it was like crawfish, something you eat to survive. But it was made fancy by popular elites, and therefore it became highbrow."

According to Mobile Cuisine, the edible-snail movement hit the U.S., particularly California, in the 1850s. The delicacy may not be a state-side staple yet, but that doesn't mean it's not catching on. American restaurants serve roughly 1 billion snails each year — but, unlike Europe, the bulk of snails in the U.S. come in cans.

In Europe, chefs opt for hand-picked snails. These snails are similar to eating, say, fresh clams. The flavors and overall experience are inarguably better than canned. But, since America's escargot enthusiasm is still being cultivated, the states have few certified snail farms, according to Forbes.

Peconic Escargot of New York, one of the few USDA certified snail farms in the states, is doing its part to gain snail momentum in America, and has customers ranging from home cooks to fine-dining restaurants. And, for those particularly curious, Peconic even sells fresh snails on its website.

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This escargot dish consists of Brittany snails, garlic, butter and parsley.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

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What Does Escargot Taste Like?

To impress the likes of kings, Michelin-star chefs, and culinary icons like the late Anthony Bourdain, snails have to be more than an interesting culinary adventure. And they are, says Chrostowski, who adores the snail's unique flavor.

"It's of the earth," he says. "The way the snail consumes clovers, grains and lives in the garden, it takes on this terroir of the area, so it really tastes like the earth. And it has this almost gelatinous property, like a gelatinous firm texture with a burst of earth."

Now, before you go chow down on any old garden snail, take note: Not all snails are edible. The plump Burgundy snail, Helix pomatia, is the most popular escargot species in France, according to Grit.com. Common brown garden snails, Helix aspersa, are also fine to eat.

Chrostowski also says to be careful about where you source snails. "Some people try to get rid of snails and put these poisons out," he says. "You don't want to eat a snail that's been eating poison."

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Viktoria Rabkova is a co-founder of the Ratov snail farm in Belarus. The farm breeds edible species of snails, including Burgundy snails (Helix Pomatia).
Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images

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How to Cook Escargot

If you're ready to try your hand at cooking snails, Chrostowski has some tips to make your first escargot attempt successful.

"We cook it in its shell, take it out, process it, then sauté in fennel, plenty of garlic and butter," he says. "When you flavor it, you do so not to mask it, but enhance it. And don't overcook it. Plus, it's really important to get the right snail from the start."

Chrostowski recommends cooking with a Burgundy snail whenever possible. "It's probably the most expensive," he says. "But it's the best, and you're going to have a great experience with it."

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