Talk about slow food! This weekend I cooked snails that Ludwig and I collected from Portland NSW, and they were delicious. Don’t get squeamish or revolt in disgust. Instead, keep an open mind and perhaps you too can make something tasty out of those garden snails eating those lovely basil leaves in your well-tended garden. Yes, it’s true. Your garden snails are edible delicacies that we have been enjoying for thousands of years. The French are perhaps the first people to come to mind when you think about edible snails, with their love of escargots cooked with garlic and herbs. But the French are certainly not the only people with a penchant for the little molluscs. The Italians, for instance, have been eating both land and sea snails since Roman times, and the Lebanese love them as well.
As a child, I knew that the best time to go looking for snails would be when the first good winter rain had arrived. Snails love heat and humidity, and that last bit of warmth combined with the rainfall seems to bring them from their hiding. A good place to look for them would be under sheltering stones, bushes or branches fallen of trees. A snail gathering expedition would yield bucket loads if we were lucky. The snails would then be kept in a well ventilated plastic knit sack (similar to what they sell lemons in these days) to purge for a couple of weeks before they are consumed. This purging process is necessary to ensure that the snails empty their digestive tract, especially of all harmful toxins they may have ingested. I washed these snails in several changes of cold water before plunging them for 5 minutes in boiling salted water. This initial boil kills the snails instantly, and also gets rid of the scum which rises to the surface. Draining the snails and boiling them again in fresh water with aromatics starts the real cooking process which goes on for around 2 hours. After that, the snails should be easily removable from their shells. I like to rinse them in fresh boiling water one more time before they are ready to be prepared for eating. Traditionally, the Lebanese stop cooking right there, and just eat the snails with tahini and Lebanese bread. So far, this to me is the best way of eating snails and I much prefer it to any fancy preparation.
Unfortunately, I had only picked a small amount of snails and I wanted the portions to stretch. This snail spaghetti worked a treat, and it drew on the French preparation which shares Lebanese flavour accents of garlic and parsley. In addition to that, I simply used verjuice (juice of unripe green grapes) and chilli. Verjuice is a staple in the Lebanese larder, especially in country towns that are too high in altitude to grow citrus trees. It has a good citrus tang and is slightly sweet. If you hate the idea of eating snails, rest assured that they are not slimy or rubbery. They don’t smell or taste foul. They actually taste similar to mussels and in the same way their texture, though slightly chewy, is lovely.
I will give this recipe with no measurements, since I assume you know how to cook pasta, and the rest of the ingredients are really a matter of taste. The snails of course, depend on availability.
- Snails (Purged)
- Lemon peel (wax free lemons)
- Bay Leaves
- Onion, halved
For the Pasta
- The above prepared snails
- Garlic, finely chopped
- Chilli, chopped
- Parsley, chopped
- Olive Oil
- Salt and Pepper, to taste
- Wash the snails well in several changes of cold water
- Plunge the snails in salted boiling water, removing any froth that rises to the surface
- After 5 minutes, drain the snails and boil in more salted water with the lemon peel, onions, bay leaves and peppercorns
- Continue cooking for 2 hours, removing any further froth
- When the snails are done they should be easy to remove from their shells. Drain the snails and rinse them in fresh boiled water
To make the pasta
- Remove the snails from the shells. If your snails are large, you might want to cut them in half. Drain well
- Boil your spaghetti in plenty of salted water. When cooked al dente, drain and keep aside
- Heat some olive oil and butter in a sauce pan and fry the garlic and chilli with salt
- When the garlic is brown, but before it burns, add the snails and fry them on high heat
- When the liquid seems to have reduced, add some verjuice on the sides of the sauce pan and allow it to reduce further
- Throw your pasta on top of the sauce and stir
- Take off the heat and add your chopped parsley and stir
- Season to taste and serve hot