If there are any Francophiles reading this who have never tried eating snails and think they never will, all I can say is never say never.
During our annual holiday in the Aude last August we spent time with our French friends Claude and Julien. They live on a small holding in the country and are the most self-sufficient people I know.
Julien built their house himself when he and Claude were first married in the 1970s. It’s set in a large plot of land where geese, ducks and chickens wander happily all over the place (at night they are kept safe from foxes inside electrified fences). The vegetable garden is the largest and best kept I have ever seen.
Claude and Julien both firmly believe in the maxim that you are what you eat and last summer offered to give us some cooking lessons. So over the course of three days we arrived each morning, washed our hands, put on aprons and stood as willing pupils in the kitchen.
The first lesson was how to make paté de campagne which consists simply of pork belly and pork liver chopped up and flavoured with salt and pepper. The mixture is then put into glass pots, sealed and steamed for 3 hours.
The next lesson was on Toulouse sausages, made of pork belly minced up and pushed into sausage skins. Some of the sausages were flavoured with “épices rabelais”, a mix of spices that comes in a colourful little cardboard box. Unfortunately I haven’t seen them on sale in England nor found them online. Other sausages had Roquefort cheese added, which were my personal favourite.
Finally we moved onto apricot jam, nothing but apricots and sugar, stirred for hours until the mixture is at the right consistency. Claude said that in her grandmother’s day the stirring had to be done by hand. Fortunately Claude has found a huge steel bowl with a beater attached (made by an Italian manufacturer) that does the job now. There were no flavourings, no colourings and no chemical ingredients in anything we cooked.
During the course of these lessons I mentioned that I had never eaten snails. Julien said that when he was a young man working on the family farm, he would go out into the fields in the morning with some bread in one pocket and a packet of salt in the other. When he became hungry he would look for snails, sprinkle them with salt which kills them, and then eat them with the bread.
A few days later we were invited over for lunch. The salad (all the ingredients grown in the vegetable patch) and cured meat (all from those happy geese, ducks and chickens) were set out on the table. Then a huge bowl of snails was brought in. Julien sat at the top of the table beaming and told me he had found them all in the garden the day before and I should try them. So I did because eating them in that environment was quite normal.
The snails had the slightly rubbery texture you would expect, but the sauce they were cooked in was delicious.
At the end of the holiday we drove back to England in a car loaded with pots of paté de campagne, packets of sausages and jars of apricot jam. And one jar of snails in sauce. The paté, the sausages and the jam were greatly enjoyed. The snails didn’t manage the journey as they were rather rancid by the time we arrived home. I don’t think they liked leaving the Aude.