10,000 years before our era, humans were already eating snails. Archeological excavations have uncovered traces of this activity. When did people start farming them? That is not known.
The Ancient Egyptians had invented a two-pronged fork that is thought to have been used for eating snails.
The Ancient Greeks ate a lot of them, which is logical given the abundance of snails in that country.
The Romans, fond of the little creatures, had impressive "snaileries" – cochlearia – containing thousands of snails. Pliny the Elder says that many came from Africa because they were more fertile, and that they were fed with "fortified wine, flour, and other food". Apicius has them purged in milk before frying or roasting them and serving them with olive oil, garlic, and parsley.
Snails were always a staple as they were easy to collect. They were served in many ways during the Middle Ages, considered as lean meat, and there were snail farms in every monastery.
Seafarers carried them on their ships so that they assured a supply of fresh meat at all times.
They were later looked down upon until the beginning of the 19th century. In 1814, Carême prepared them for Czar Alexander I with butter, garlic to disguise the taste, and parsley. Snails came back into fashion, and were found on every table at Parisian brasseries. And there they will remain.
Snails are not only appreciated and farmed in France; it is also the case in several European countries. In the Americas, there are several farms in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. There are also two in Australia, one in China, and one in Korea.
Popular festivals are held in honor of the snail, particularly in southern Europe.
Live snails are sourced from local collections or farms. They rarely come from importers.
They are available frozen either in their shells, with their shells removed and blanched, with their shells removed and poached in court-bouillon, or in their shells and stuffed.
They are sold preserved, obviously without shells, in jars or cans, poached in court-bouillon.
The title escargot or snail is forbidden for giant African land snails in France, but they can be sold with this name in other countries.
Snail "caviar" is packed into small glass tubs or in flat metal cans, like real caviar. They are not allowed to be sold as caviar.
The cleaned empty shells are packed in boxes.
Snail flesh should always be soft and melt in the mouth, and its flavor should be a little earthy.
The quality of a live farmed snail's flesh is difficult to define, since it depends on its flavor, which greatly reflects what the snail has been fed.
The quality of frozen snail flesh also depends on its flavor, whether it is wild and imported, but also on the cooking process it has undergone.
The farmer or importer should be asked for samples in order for the quality to be ascertained.
Whether frozen or preserved, the origin and species of the snails should be clearly marked.
Live snails should be cleaned and purged before being poached in a court-bouillon (See "Snails: Preparation and Cooking").
They are traditionally served à la bourguignonne: in other words, in their shell with a compound butter, the same as that prepared by Carême. In his Dictionnaire, Alexandre Dumas interpreted this recipe with "shredded Swiss cheese", before covering them with "butter seasoned with fine herbs and a hint of garlic". He also cooked them à la provençale, à la bordelaise, à la polonaise, and in broth.
Snails are widely eaten in Spain, where they are served with different sauces, and cooked in paella, with rabbit, and with shellfish. They are also popular in Greece, where they are often prepared with vegetables, broiled, or in stews. The Chinese often prepare them with rice wine.
Snail eggs can be added to scrambled eggs.
Live snails can be kept in the refrigerator or cool room at 3–5ºC, for 2 days if they have fasted, or 12 days if they have not undertaken their mandatory fast.
Cans or jars can be kept in a cabinet or storeroom. The same goes for the empty shells.
Deep-frozen snails should be kept in the freezer at -18ºC, without breaking the cold chain.
Snail flesh is high in protein and minerals, especially magnesium, which it has in exceptional quantities.
It is low in fat, and the fat it does have is particularly rich in Omega 3, very healthy unsaturated fatty acids. The extraordinary longevity of the Cretans has been attributed to their regular intake of snails and eggs, which are equally high in Omega 3 owing to hens feeding on snails, which are very small in Crete.
However... the snail butter traditionally used for cooking them reduces their benefits.
The most commonly eaten species are:
. Burgundy or Roman Snail (Helix pomatia)
This is the only variety entitled to use the name Escargot de Bourgogne. It grows to 40–55 mm and weighs 25–45 g. It has a distinctive earthy flavor. This is the most widely eaten variety.
It is difficult to farm. Owing to its rareness, in is protected in France and can only be collected from April 1 through June 30, and only if they are larger than 30 mm. It is an abundant species in Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Poland, where they are generally collected in May and June, and the source of French imports.
. Turkish snail (Helix lucorum)
This variety is very similar to the Burgundy snail, and a little larger. But its greenish flesh and overly earthy taste are less good.
This variety is not farmed, but it is collected in Turkey, Syria, Greece, Italy, and Bulgaria.
. Brown garden snail (Helix aspersa aspersa)
This is the most common variety. It is found in every garden, field, and wood in Western Europe and the Mediterranean basin. It measures 28–35 mm and weighs 7–15 g. Its flesh is brown and quite firm.
It is mainly imported into France from Greece, but it is also widely farmed.
. Land snail (Helix aspersa maxima) Gros gris (Helix aspersa maxima)
Mainly living in North Africa, this snail measures 40–45 mm and weighs 20–30 g. Its flesh is firm and very fragrant. Farming of this snail is increasing.
. Giant African land snail (Achatina fulica)
This tropical species is very abundant in Indonesia (from where most French imports of this species come from), southeast Africa, Madagascar, Oceania, and Florida.
Although it is a gastropod, it is not entitled to be called escargot in France.
Farmed snails are available throughout most of the year. They are stored in a cool room after collection, generally in the fall.
Wild snails hibernate in winter, and also during very hot weather. Collection is made according to the season and the humidity, generally in spring.
Giant African land snails do not hibernate: they are collected all year round.