It could be imagined that the prospect of consuming a creature even more viscously repulsive than the frog might have inspired similar feelings of unmitigated revulsion in the English-colonized part of my Frenglishman stomach. Is it because it has long been used to relishing its sea-bound cousins? Or is it simply due to the fact that this gastropod is called upon to suffer in silence? Whatever the case may be, I can tolerate, even enjoy a dozen (or more) escargots, without the Englishman in me manifesting even the semblance of a qualm. It must be admitted, however, that his appreciation of the dish is perhaps due more to the assertive flavour procured by the butter, parsley and garlic sauce it is usually cooked in; for snail flesh in itself is characterized by a limpish, rubber-like texture, and a taste which bears more comparison with chewing gum that has been conscientiously masticated for at least an hour.
Though horrified by the method used to cut the frog down to frying-pan proportions, my Englishman closes my right eye to the even more hideous fate reserved for the snail: for, in order to eliminate any toxic vegetation it may have swallowed, our gastropod is first subjected to a three or four-week fast, after which the little life still remaining is extinguished by plunging the poor creature into a pan of boiling water. Moreover, if quantities alone are to be gone by, the French would be nicknamed ‘Snailies’ rather than ‘Froggies’. For two in every three of the snails swallowed on our planet (a total of around 700 million per year) find their way into a Gallic stomach. Usually the larger-sized escargot de Bourgogne (helix pomatia) is favoured and, though, understandably, native numbers are steadily declining, snail-gathering (early wet summer mornings produce the best results) is still legally permitted for private consumption, and even sale. Disappointingly, as with frogs’ legs, most of the snails consumed these days are of foreign origin, and usually come in deep-frozen or canned form. Ready-prepared snails, ensconced in their shells and topped with butter, garlic and parsley sauce, are widely available in French supermarket freezers, and need only be popped into a hot oven or simply micro-waved. Sauce-bound snails can also be found nestling in flaky pastry, vol-au-vent type cases. Though these are usually eaten as a starter, they may be served up as an amuse-gueule – a tasty ‘gob-amuser’ to be enjoyed with a pre-meal drink. As is the case with frogs’ legs, the self-respecting French snail-eater reckons in nothing less than dozens, and the delicacy is, therefore, usually eaten from the shell on a dedicated plate with twelve hollows. Finger-assisted consumption being messy, a pair of snail tongs is provided for holding (and not crushing) the shells, along with a specific slimline extraction fork (at home a pin could be used). It goes without saying that, not only is the systematic dunking of the accompanying sauce allowed, but is generally considered to be an indispensable way of enjoying the whole.