February 16, 2014


Mention Burgundy to any Frenchman and he will talk about wine. Mention eating in Burgundy to any Frenchman, the first word will be “escargots.”

Snails are the dominant gastronomic treat of Burgundy. They are featured on postcards, revered in poetry, and cherished in kitchens throughout the region. Chefs and home cooks play with them, putting them in risotto, baking them in a crust, or putting them in a quiche. The classic preparation -- butter, parsley, and garlic, eaten hot as hell -- remains the measuring stick, however. Like many foods (pizza, popcorn, hamburgers), you can mess with it, but it is tough to beat the original. Eat a dozen escargots made this way. New culinary horizons appear before you.

With this popularity and commercialization, of course, come sneaky tricks, shoddy preparation, and even fraud. (If you’ve ever tried “New England clam chowder” in Sioux Falls or “Authentic Texas barbecue” in Wilkes-Barre, you know what I mean. It’s just not the same.)

The Grand Maître of the Confrérie de l’Escargot de Bourgogne (the Snail Brotherhood), Monsieur Rosa, offered some tips, observations, and a brief seminar on snails while horizontal rain reigned outside (which explains the total lack of photos).

First, and most important, the genuine article is “l’escargot de Bourgogne” (singular) or “les escargots de Bourgogne” (plural). These exact words refer to the species of snail, Helix Pomatia. If you see “escargots à la bourgigonne” or some variation, you are not eating the real thing.    

Second, l’escargot de Bourgogne doesn’t survive in the wild in any meaningful way in France anymore. It is a protected species with very specific harvest regulations. Its habitat has been largely destroyed by the double-barreled realties of heavy pesticide use and a shift towards farming grains and cereals where once there were woods. Now, snails come from Poland, Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. Helix Pomatia takes about 2.5 years to reach maturity and, thus far, attempts to raise it in captivity have been unsuccessful. As farmers and winemakers shift to cleaner, healthier ways of raising and producing food, however, escargots are beginning to return to vineyards and woodlands in France.

Third, when preparing snails for consumption, it is extremely important, according to the Snail Pope (seriously), that it be done using French ingredients. Some exporting countries have experimented with preparing the snails for consumption and then shipping them to France. “Et ce n’était pas bon.” One wonders, “Who could screw up butter, parsley, and garlic?” The Frenchman responds that the ingredients were not French, and therefore were not good. (Take a minute and think about the average American saying that something wasn’t good because the parsley used in the dish wasn’t American.)

While M. Rosa is a master of the snail (he informed me that snail slime/drool is used in cosmetics), he is also a diplomat. He extolled the virtues of many snail-preparers in Dijon and the region. He did mention that one could find dependable escargots to prepare at home at La Boutique de l’Escargot in Dijon. If you would like to dine out, the Grand Maître indicated that one would not be disappointed at L’Escargot. But he stressed there are many great places to buy and enjoy escargots, so experiment and enjoy. Also, keep an eye out for a brand new Maison de l’Escargot, coming to Dijon on the rue des Forges in 2014 or 2015.

If you are part of a group of snail enthusiasts interested in becoming a member of the Confrérie de l'Escargot during your trip in France, send me an email.

What: Snails
Where: Burgundy
When: Year-round
How much: Up to you.

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