The intermittent rain has created a perfect habitat for snails. Excuze-moi…les escargots. Several of Danie and Guy’s friends are staying at the farm for the week, and one of them, René, is excited to share his grandfather’s escargot recipe with us. My first discovery: Most French people don’t like snails. So I won’t be the only one wincing at a plate full of these chewy little creatures.
The process begins two days before our snail feast. Between rainstorms, René and his friend Robert stalk their prey. They return with a yellow bucket of snails and announce they have been freshly attrapé, or caught. There must be an error in translation.
At dinner, René explains that he will feed the snails parsley for two days, then sprinkle them with salt. I ask if they gavage the snails, as they do the geese. One of René’s friends quickly explains how difficult it would be to force-feed a snail because, well, unlike the geese, they don’t have necks. And it would be very, very difficult to hold a snail’s mouth open. I laugh so hard I can’t even say je plaisante, I’m joking.
The snails are fed a generous helping of parsley, then receive a spa-esque salt glow treatment, causing them to retreat into their shells, but René explains that they’ll come back out before they’re cooked. The bucket of salty, herbed snails marinates in the barn overnight. We salt the snails a second time the next morning.
René then washes the snails six times to rinse out the salt and any residue that’s accumulated throughout the snail’s lifetime of scooting around in the street. He boils a large pot with carrots, onions, thyme, a bay leaf, salt, and pepper, then drops in the live snails. They don’t scream as lobsters do; it’s quite peaceful. But the house smells like the beach when the tide is out.
When the snails are cooked, we use a tiny fork to pull their rubbery bodies from the coquille, or shell. Halfway through, René finds tiny eggs in of the shells. He’s so excited. “Look! It’s the caviar!” Ugh. I don’t even like normal caviar. I ask René why we go to the trouble of pulling the body out just to stuff it back in, and he explains that it’s mainly for aesthetics. (He could put a tutu on one of these guys, and I still wouldn't be interested. )
We create a mixture of pork pâté, pepper, thin butter slices, garlic, shallot, crushed hazelnuts, and parsley, then put a pinch in each shell, followed by a snail and more of the garlicky mixture. Instead of their original homes, we stuff the snails into shells Danie’s mother once used: Like fine family china, snail shells are passed down through generations (at least at Danie’s house).
The snails go into the oven for four minutes, and then it’s lunchtime. Each place setting is equipped with a miniature fork, perfect for digging buttery snails out of their shells. I start with three. And -- are you sitting down? --it’s actually pretty decent. The pâté is so rich, I’m not sure I can even taste the snail meat. Everyone at the table finishes their escargots, and several opt for seconds, including me. My second discovery: With enough butter and garlic (and rosé Champagne), I can eat just about anything -- even the tires off my old Explorer.