UMBRIA, Italy— Escargot have always intrigued me. My first memories of them are warm. Everything is warm. I remember it being summer in Maine and sitting on the porch, the rough wood under my outstretched legs and the warm sun cutting shadows across the tops of those baby legs. I remember bare feet and my Aunt Ginny sitting in a chair above me, laughing. Then my mother would back out of the screen door calling something into the house and carrying a dish in each hand. And I was excited. Somehow, even at six, I new that escargot was crazy. For starters we ate them off the special round white dishes that were for boiled artichokes only! Then just to add to the mayhem we prodded them out of their shells using the minature ceramic ears of sweet corn shaped prongs that were only for, uh – ears of sweet corn! Now add to this that my big brother has told me that these little chewy buttery bites were SNAILS?! Do Mom and Dad know? They’re really giving us snails? Is that ok? I just kept my mouth shut and hoped they didn’t notice what they had done while I savored the warm melty garlicky snack.
Flash forward to Italy almost 20 years later and here I am after a few spring rainstorms with a garden teeming with lumache (snails, in Italian). They must be rappelling down our back wall. After a rain they are everywhere. Chrunch. Opps. Another one bites the dust. I have heard from people in town that you can prepare them, and again I am intrigued by these cute little buggers- I can prepare snails myself can’t I? Well, lets just see about that.
I had thought about DIY snails for days when it became necessary to sweep the garden steps of the drifts of Wisteria petals; but in every step corner are groups of lumache and without thinking I grab a bowl and don’t stop until the bowl is full and I have about 45 snails. It’s only then that I realize I have no earthly idea what to do with them. I leave the bowl and race up to the computer to figure something out.
WHO DOES A WEBSITE ABOUT COOKING SNAILS, ANYWAY?
There are actually lots of websites with recipes for lumache. And they all agree that before being cooked they must ’be prepared.’ This involves a fasting, so the snails can get any bad guck out. Normally this takes around two weeks, but as my snails have been in a garden without pesticides it will only take six day. ONLY six days! Ok, didn’t I tell you these suckers are crazy?
“The first three days the snails are kept in a white non-acid box with drainage and fed only dill and thyme for flavor.” Well, after trying wooden fruit boxes and baskets that the snails keep climbing out of; I find a site that says that breathable plastic is acceptable and easy to clean. So I settle on a plastic cutting board covering a plastic strainer and set on top of a flower stand. Ok, now that the escape routes have been covered what about that dill and thyme- ok yes – for escargot that’s great, but these are lumache and my garden is filled with sage and rosemary- so I guess that’ll do.
ALL COMFY IN THERE? MORE HERBS, ANYONE?
For three days I take the snails, wash the strainer and each snail individually and give them more herbs to eat (I feel slightly like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, but I placate myself with the knowledge that otherwise the cats get them or they’ll be thrown out with the garden clippings). From the 4th-6th day I continue the daily washing, but stop including herbs.
Then comes Sunday- the day of reckoning. I am following the traditional garlic and butter snail recipe, but can someone tell me why something so ultimately simple has so many steps?
First, the snails are boiled for 3 minutes. Then you remove the meat from the shell (interestingly most of the meat still holds the spiral of the shell). The meat is then left for an hour in cold water saturated with salt, while boiling further disinfects the shells.
During this time I prepare the “Court Bouillon”. (Editor’s note: there must, must be a reason for this title. Do not know what it is. The Wiley Traveler is traveling right now. Will ask her to explain the royal terminology later) I will be simmering the snails in a mixture of: white wine, water, carrots, onions, garlic, shallots, sage, rosemary hot peppers and the kitchen sink, for an hour. The mixture is beautiful to look at and lovely to smell and I wish I knew something else to do with it, besides boiling snails.
While it is simmering (mind you this is now onto the 3rd almost 4th hour) I am creating the garlic butter, by kneading finely chopped garlic, shallots and Dijon mustard into sticks of butter. Once that is done I place a small amount of the butter inside each of the empty shells that are now on a cookie sheet. I then place a single lumaca in each shell and with each one I realize too late that I have pushed too much butter in the shell and that I have no real idea which one should go in which and the butter keeps squidging out everywhere. But once I finally get them all in I cap each one with more butter. The tray is then placed into the oven (along side crusty bread I have toasting and vegetables I have roasting) for all of 3 or 4 minutes, long enough to make the butter bubble and the kitchen smell like heaven.
And then after 6 days and 6 hours I sit down and eat my snails. I’m on our terazza in Italy, not our porch in Maine. And I am not laughing as I take the first bite- I am praying that it was in some way worth all the time and effort- and feeling as though my crazy gene has won and understanding why they cost so much at restaurants and here goes the first bite… and… they’re good. And yes, after a week of preparation they are slightly anticlimactic, and I need the ooohs and ahhhs I get a few weeks later from my family to really send the point home; but they are good, really good in fact. I wish they were a little chewier but I’m probably the only one who wants anything chewier. And I think the step of saturating the snails in salt is a bit much for something that takes on flavor so easily, but come on; garden snails? Butter? Garlic? How wrong can you go?!
Whether I’m telling friends in the States or in Panicale they look at me like I’m nuts, the Italians think I’m saying the wrong thing and desperately search for what I could possibly be going on about; but you know, it feels good to use our city garden for sustenance. In the fall it’s figs and in the spring it’s Lumache and although you can tell me I’ve lost my mind no one’s gonna tell me that that’s not the way it should be!
THE MIGHTY SNAILS OF SIENA
This is a photo of the big decorative plate that hangs over the mantle in our kitchen. We are suckers for the colors of the Contrada Chiocciola in Siena. The neighborhood of the snail. This is the symbol that our friends at Spannocchia rally around for the madcap, bareback horse race through the Campo every summer. When I think of all the names I could imagine wearing on a sweatshirt, I think Panthers, Tigers, Broncos, Cowboys, Patriots. Even the Mighty Ducks. But The Snails? Don’t know if I would ever come up with that. I will admit snails really make a plate.
See you in Italy,