Escargot– pronounced es-car-goh- is one of the fundamental components of French cuisine. It literally means ‘snail’ in French, but then again the French have the ability to make anything sound sophisticated- c’est la vie! You may be thinking, “Snails? I’m out,” but bear with me for a second and I’ll give you a few reasons to give it a shot.
I always knew snails as the crisp remnants under my shoes following post-rain walks in my garden with my grandfather. I saw them nibbling on leaves, their dark bodies changing shapes at will and always thought that the gooey trail they left in their wake was utterly revolting. Little did I know that a decade or so later, I’d be sitting at a white tablecloth kinda restaurant, fork in hand, tongs on deck, as a simmering selection of snails were presented like fine wine or a rare cut of aged beef.
I had escargots au beurre d’anchois (snails with anchovy butter) at a restaurant in London out of pure curiosity. Not knowing what to expect, I pictured a platter with the slimy insides of a snail or two. I was in it for the kicks, willing to try something for the novelty of it. Also I imagined that the expressions on the faces of my fellow diners would be priceless. I was in it for everything but the culinary experience.
The appetizer was brought out in a serving platter specifically made for snails, with indentations where the snails would be placed, swimming in butter and garlic. I looked down at six snails, and they seemed to look right back at me. Complete with whiffs of garlic and seasoned with coriander and lemon, it was an aromatic first impression. I was ready to take the plunge.
Cooking this delicacy should be left to the experts. Before you start scouring your yard for snails to cook, be warned- not all snails are edible and if you’re not a snail expert (which you’re not) just go to a restaurant already.
Hollow snail shells are separately sold, contrary to popular belief; the canned snails only have the actual snails in them. Furthermore, the indented platter used for the presentation of escargot is custom built. You won’t be making escargot in your kitchen without some serious help.
The best way to cook escargot is to bake the snails. I prefer that the hollow shells are included during the baking process, as they complement it in the same way bones help broth. Whipping up some garlic butter and lathering it onto the snails, which have somehow miraculously crawled back into the shell (they’re manually placed there), the tray is baked till the butter is bubbling. Seasoned with lemon and coriander before serving, you’ll be in for a treat like no other.
Enjoying this delicacy is not all about the snails. The process involved is pretty interesting; it starts with delicately holding the shell with tongs and then extracting the each snail with a snail fork. The tongs used to extract each snail from the shell remind me of utensils used to crack and extract crab meat. Eating escargot is also akin to eating crab insofar that it can be messy, and you may need a bib to keep splatters of the melted garlic butter from destroying the latest additions to your wardrobe- don’t say I didn’t warn you. For my first time, I had my napkin and diet coke on hand. It’s safe to say that I was expecting the worst.
The minute I popped one of these garden dwellers in my mouth, an explosion of flavors took over my tastebuds. The snails did not taste like slime, but were a rather salty, oily and absolutely delicious rendition of a childhood memory presented through culinary perfection. The harmony between bits of garlic, parsley and butter accentuates the snails and left me speechless.
Heads up though, it does have a rather rubbery texture, which may be a no-no for certain diners, but on the whole should not factor too much into your experience. If you’re good with calamari, you should be absolutely fine with escargot. The texture is perfectly chewable, and and the taste of the snail itself diminishes any untoward feeling towards the texture.
The only qualm I’ve had with escargot is regarding it’s size: even though the garlic and butter combo does leave me feeling a bit guilty, I can have the whole platter and still want more- the servings are measly. Let’s just say I won’t be having it for my main course any time soon.
I only know of one restaurant that serves escargot in Pakistan: Cafe Aylanto is my go to place for the novelty item. Do give it a try for my sake, it’s worth the price. Elsewhere in the world, you’ll find it at renowned French restaurants, the likes of which are rapidly increasing in all major cities. This dish is also quite popular in Spain! If you find yourself lazing about in Marbella, don’t be shy and indulge!
Surprisingly, the trend for escargot never picked up in Pakistan the way that it did all over the world. I’m a bit sad that there’s only one restaurant (I know of) serving escargot; is it because of the lack of culinary skills on the part of local chefs? Or is it because people simply refuse to try it? It’s time to drastically alter the food landscape in Pakistan- be adventurous, don’t order that Caeser Salad and go for something a bit more risque. Hell, do it for the sake of dinner table conversation. You only live once.