It is strange, what we each consider disgusting in the way of food. Most of us would not consider eating cockroaches, largely because of their perceived dirty scavenging eating habits yet lust after lobsters, which are sometimes called ‘the cockroaches of the sea’ for their similar eating preferences. Snails are another opinion-dividing food – are they a disgusting garden-destroying, slimy, rubbery vermin, or a delicious appetiser?
I make no apologies for using for at least the second time the quotation at the end of the post. I think it is very funny, and it does reinforce the notion that snail-eating is a decidedly French habit. This is not, or was not true, of course. Snails were commonly used in England and many other countries in previous times, both for their perceived medicinal value and as a valuable and nourishing food.
I give you three recipes for snails – one each from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The sliminess of snails suggested their use for soothing the chest, hence their recommendation in cases of consumption and other lung complaints.
To dresse snayles.
Take your Snayles (they are no way so as in Pottage) and wash them very well in many waters, and when you have done put them in a White Earthen Pan, or very wide Dish, and put as much water to them as will cover them, and then set your Dish or Pan on some coales, that it may heat by little and little, and then the Snayles will come out of the shells and so dye, and being dead, take them out and wash them very well in Water and salt twice or thrice over; then put them in a Pipkin with Water and Salt, and let them boyle a little while in that, so take away the rude slime they have, then take them out againe and put them in a Cullender; then take excellent sallet Oyle and beat it a great while upon the fire in a frying Pan, and when it boyls very fast, slice two or three Onyons in it, and let them fry well, then put the Snayles in the Oyle and Onyons, and let them stew together a little, then put the Oyle, Onyons, and Snayles altogether in an earthen Pipkin of a fit size for your Snayles, and put as much warm water to them as will serve to boyle them and make the Pottage and season them with Salt, and so let them boyle three or foure hours; then mingle Parsley, Pennyroyall, Fennell, Tyme, and such Herbs, and when they are minced put them in a Morter and beat them as you do for Green-sauce, andput in some crums of bread soaked in the Pottage of the Snayles, and then dissolve it all in the Morter with a little Saffron and Cloves well beaten, and put in as much Pottage into the Morter as will make the Spice and bread and Herbs like thickening for a pot, so put them all into the Snayles and let them stew in it, and when you serve them up, you may squeeze into the Pottage a Lemon, and put in a little Vinegar, or if you put in a Clove of Garlick among the Herbs, and beat iti with them in the Morter, it will not tast the worse;serve them up in a Dish with sippets of Bread in the bottom. The Pottage is very nourishing, and they use them that are apt to a Consumption.
The Compleat Cook, Nathaniel Brook, 1658
To Stew Snails.
Scour them, and cleanse them well, put them into a Pipkin with Claret and Wine-vinegar, Salt, Pepper, Mace, grated Bread, Thyme shred, Capers, and the Yolks of a hard Egg or two, minc’d. Stew all these together, then put in a good piece of Butter, and shake them well together, warm a Dish, rub it with a Clove of Garlick, lay Sippets in the Dish, put on the Snails, garnish with Barberries and slices of Lemon.
The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary (1723) John Nott.
There is no sense in the previous two recipes of needing to be apologetic about the main ingredient. By the nineteenth century, perhaps sensibilities had changed – at least, that is what is suggested by the final recipe, in which the author notes that some repugnance may have to be overcome, and that the taste may be ‘mawkish’.
Wash them extremely well, and throw them into very hot water; take them out of the shell, and pass them through several waters; working them well with the hand; slice them, pound the shells, and put all into a saucepan, with as much water as will cover; boil, skim, and let them simmer for several hours; add a little salt, sugar, and a very small quantity of mace, to correct the mawkish taste: a tea-cupful may be taken four times a day, with or without conserve of roses. Should the patient have any repugnance to it in this form, let it be put into some weak veal broth; this is far preferable to slater [woodlouse] wine …
Domestic economy, and cookery, for rich and poor, (1827)
This final recipe is included in the chapter on Medicinal Soups in my new book Soup: a Global History, which is available now. You can read about it at Reaktion Press, and you can even buy it from Amazon or your preferred book supplier.
Quotation for the Day.
The French are not rude. They just happen to hate you. But that is no reason to bypass this beautiful country, whose master chefs have a well-deserved worldwide reputation for trying to trick people into eating snails. Nobody is sure how this got started. Probably a couple of French master chefs were standing around one day, and they found a snail, and one of them said: "I bet that if we called this something like `escargot,' tourists would eat it." Then they had hearty laugh, because ‘escargot’ is the French word for ‘fat crawling bag of phlegm.’