At a Snail's Place

Richard Fullington is trying to make a fortune in a slimy business

Fullington has explored the European market, but was given the cold shoulder at the big food show last year in Cologne. "I had a list of escargot people to talk to and the first one I introduced myself to said, "I know who you are and I've been told not to talk to you."

The snail market is controlled by the French canners and "they're not stupid," says Cook. "They know that supporting the growers' industry means the end of their business, simply because fresh snails taste better than canned, so they suppress the growth of growing snails by continuing to buy cheaper imported snails."

The French are very stubborn about their snails. They admit the petit-gris has more flavor, yet they prefer the bigger pomatia.They're also very particular about how they eat snails. Dallasite Deborah Orrill, director of professional programs at the prestigious La Varenne cooking academy in Burgundy, says that "the French are stuck on the idea of le gout de terroir --the taste of the earth. They believe that 'what grows together goes together,' so the wines of a region naturally go with the food of a region. The best snails to them are the ones right there in the vineyard, the Bourgogne snails, which absorb the actual flavor of the Pinot noir vines they're eating."

Orrill also says that most chefs stick to the traditional preparation: "a dozen snails to a serving, in a little white porcelain dish with wells like an oyster dish. The snails are served in the shell, with a garlic-butter-parsley mixture and they come with a clamp to hold the shell steady and a little fork to extract the creature out of his garlic-butter bath."

Some of the younger French chefs are experimenting with new preparations: Orrill tasted breaded, fried snails at a restaurant in Burgundy, and, wine importer Stuart says, "the best way I've ever had petit-gris is at a little restaurant near where we live in France. They stuff the shell with ham and garlic and cheese and put that in the shell with the snail and cook it." New American chefs are even bolder, separating the snails from the shells and piling them over pasta or seafood, even pizza.

At Escargot International's Addison office, furnished with an Oriental rug, a receptionist's desk, and an armoire filled with snail shells, I was served a plate of escargots prepared by Chris Svalesen, executive chef of New American restaurant Yellow and a big fan of Fullington's snails. Playing off their earthiness, Svalesen piles the snails in a portobello mushroom cap, and sauces them with Chianti, reduced to a syrupy red sauce, seasoned with garlic and parsley.

Larousse Gastronomique, the bible of French cooking, calls for cooking snails up to three hours in wine and herbs; the famous French chef, Paul Bocuse, requires over an hour of cooking time for snails; but Svalesen treats these snails differently, sautŽing them fast, for no more than five minutes, according to Fullington's instructions. The little creatures keep a lighter color than the black slugs from the can, and every little whorl of their former shell is visible so they look like so many little Dairy Queen cones. They have an al dente texture, just barely chewy, with a delicate herbal flavor that melds well with the meaty mushroom and the heady sauce. The Texas escargot appetizer on Svalesen's menu outsells all the others two-to-one, largely, he says, because "the waiters sell them, telling the customers these are Texas snails" (which proves that Texans are as chauvinist as the French, especially at the table).

Fullington's snails may have the same problems as cultivated chickens or farmed salmon. The business necessity of predictable production relying on standard conditions creates a standard product, too. Modern wire-raised chickens, travel-hardy tomatoes, and soil-free snails are not as flavorful as their free-range, homegrown, or wild counterparts.

On the other hand, the French have eaten themselves into a snail corner: They prefer to eat snails a particular way; they can't raise snails themselves; they have enormous appetites; and they've eaten up all the snails.

The French have managed to solve part of their snail export problem with the achatina fulica, an enormous Indonesian whorled snail that grows to be eight or 10 inches long. The Indonesians chop up the creature's foot, which the French canners import, label escargot, and export to the U.S. because we don't know the difference.

The French are being forced to compromise their taste, too. Even they put achatina back in the shell and take it out with the little fork. Right now, Greece and Turkey are the largest suppliers of snails to French canneries and the French are also eating some snails from Nigeria.

In any case, the snails that you eat didn't grow up with the shells you take them out of because snail shells are so difficult to clean that they're even harder to come by than the animal. Fullington says he counted four species of snail shell in one package of frozen French snails. (The Department of Agriculture recently banned the importation of snail shells.)

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