When you fall asleep outside and wake up, dribble slipping from your mouth, grass imprinted onto your arms and a sneaky little snail slowly making its way across your cheek, you never let it carry on its way and make its way into your mouth so that you can munch it up.
Granted, you don’t normally eat snails with their shells on, that would be far too crunchy, but the difference between the gastronomic experience of escargot and the creatures you usually try to kill with beer because they have slimed all over your clothes is marked.
Up until recently the only snails I had eaten were ones covered in copious amounts of garlic butter and served at classic French restaurants, or by people who are trying to impress you with their daring craziness. Well guess what. No, snails are not just slugs in disguise. I was wrong, snails are eaten by much more than just the French. On a recent trip to Cortona, Italy, a small Medieval Town perched on the side of a hill in the Tuscan hills, I found that the Italians also like to slurp up those slimy crunchers.
Having come to the same restaurant, Dardano, for the 4th time in 5 nights (yes it really was that good – the rabbit was unbelievable), we sat down in the small corner table as a group of 5 old Italian ladies scuttled in. As they came in from the torrential downpour, the weight of the rain looked as if it might have crumpled their old forms, like a piece of toilet roll stupidly used a rain hat. However, as they entered into the room and the heady blast of truffle and roasting rabbit filled their nostrils, the voracious chatter and hand movements were almost overpowering, well not really, but it was definitely louder than the room had been. Anyway, after the introductions and general hellos had been done with, even though they had all arrived together and had presumably been pre-drinking and slamming jaeggies somewhere before, they sat down and ordered, what we found out to be snails, from the menu.
Having seen them order snails, we were not to be out-done. We ordered a plate to share between four of us. In France, snails are slathered in garlic butter, and while I didn’t think they would be covered in garlic, I didn’t realise they would be in such an obvious sauce as they were. These were snails in a tomato sauce. This was pretty much snails bolognese and it was delicious. The other difference between French and Italian snails was the size. French snails are nice and small, bite-size, and easy to eat in a polite way. Italian ones are absolute monsters. Think of the difference between a chihuahua and a great dane. The snails arrived on a plate, and the shells were a slight stomach-churning giveaway. As I grabbed my first shell, slathered in a slightly spicy, tomato and garlic sauce, I reached into the dark orifice with a toothpick and scrapped around for a purchase on the snot textured goodness inside. As I pulled on the snail flesh it began to slowly reveal itself, but after a few centimetres, I began to get a little worried. The snail just carried on, like a really weird magician’s trick. The snail was about the size of my thumb, which is large because I have large thumbs. I wasn’t sure whether to flop it onto the plate and cut it up or just chuck it into the air and chomp the entire thing like a true Italian hero. As I glanced over to the group of Italian ladies who were scoffing down on a plate full each, like glamorous pigs at chow time, I knew there was no other way than to eat it in one.
As opposed to the look of the snail, which was like a disgusting snot lord, the taste was delicious. It was like an earthy piece of meat covered in a rich tomato sauce. As long as you don’t mind the texture, it was similar to a meaty piece of mushroom.
While I was not going to order a full plate of the slimers, I would try these Italian versions again, no longer was I a one snail man. I was branching out, testing the waters of the snail eating world. The next time I find one slithering up my arm as I bask in the sun like the lovely pig I am, I may just let it sneak right up into my mouth. Who knows, maybe the shell might add a little bit of desired texture to the slimy meat.