Slow down for snails on a plate

Slow down for snails on a plate
Four easy dishes featuring snails that don’t need that old garlic butter sauce. (Photo: Philip Potgieter)

Although snails have been eaten as long as there’s been food, today they’re being touted as a Future Food because of the great protein content they pack.

My friend Gerrie used to say: “Tell me, why do people pay all that money in fancy restaurants to eat burned rubber bands in garlic sauce? I can make you as many as you want in my garage and they cost nothing. Then you can throw them in some garlic sauce if you like. And call them es – car – go. And get rich. That thing is really a slak. It destroys my plants.”

It was the time of the “fancy” restaurant, serving lobster bisque, saltimbocca, tournedos Rossini, tasteless fillet as the beef of elegant choice and then you could argue about how to pronounce it. There were schnitzels made of poor little veals, served with two anchovies crossed over a thin lemon ring. The desserts (not puddings) of choice were babas au rhum and flamboyant crêpes Suzette. Note, almost everything had a foreign name, including Escargots a la Bourguignonne, those snails in garlic butter.

People would mention that the lightly toasted “French loaf” was always nice dipped into That Sauce and then you twirl the snail out of its shell to have with it and that’s quite fun, but the saucy bread is really the best part. It was true. I just had a feeling there might be more to eating snails than swamped by gobbets and garlic sauce.

I’d just mastered making a pretty good lasagna in varsity days and started taking myself out to a nearby and supposedly posh Italian place for meals, mainly to find out more about pastas. Enzo the chef and I would go to the Durban botanic gardens where he’d forage for outsize snails. He served them with a slightly thinner wine and garlic sauce, with Italian bread. It still wasn’t what I was after.

I had been given, by a friend who made pottery, my own ovenproof snail platter with a dozen indents. It accompanied me through every relocation. I had vowed it was not ever going to have garlic butter on or off it. I could find no one who could tell me how else to serve or eat snails until I found a book about Provençal food that was a bit sketchy on recipes and ingredients but did mention the enjoyment of eating snails with lavender. There was no Stanley’s Snails farm in South Africa in those days so mine came, like everyone else’s, from an imported can. 

I emptied out the snails and filled the shells and snail container indents with some white wine mixed with salt and the new black pepper everyone was  suddenly using, lavender flower bits and the chopped lavender leaves looking like rosemary ones, and popped the snails back in. Everything went into a hot oven. The five to 10 minutes were not up when I heard the treasured snail container explode.

From the oven’s drip tray I plucked a snail shell, removing extraneous ceramic shards, swirled the snail in the hot Provençal lavender juice and somehow managed to swallow one of the most awful things I’ve ever eaten. It wasn’t that it was rubbery. It just tasted intensely florally horrific, with the odour of laundry wash.

All these decades later, some cheffy neighbours and I are putting together a few simple dishes that feature snails from Stanley’s. We have four different test jars containing shell-less, tender-as-your-heart snails, one lot just in the court bouillon in which they are cooked, another lot in a Mediterranean herb sauce, another in Mediterranean chilli sauce and one, yes, in a tomatoey garlic sauce. With the bouillon one, the liquid has already been reduced, some of the excellent sourdough that another neighbour, Chris Green, bakes, has been toasted and spread with plain, melting butter, the snails put back into the bouillon reduction and added to the toast, two roasted garlic cloves just standing alongside.

Snails in a reduced bouillon on toasted sourdough with melting butter. (Photo: Philip Potgieter)

I hadn’t been ignoring snails in the in-between decades. Once the lavender taste had worn off, I looked at what other countries were doing. Spain eats a surprising amount of snails, often as a broth, cooked in just such a bouillon. Arroz con caracoles is rice with snails and cabrillas en tomate are just snails in tomato. 

Here, we are using our snails in tomato on a foil-braaied potato with a yoghurt and crème fraîche mixture.

Snails in tomato on a braaied potato, with yoghurt and crème fraiche mixture. (Photo: Philip Potgieter)

In Morocco they also serve snails with broth, as a street food. I was interested to see that they use their 15-spice mix in the broth. I have some of it in my kitchen and am interested to see that one of the 15 aromatics is lavender.

I know some Chinese put just a little water in with the snails over a fire, steaming them under banana leaves, twisting out the molluscs and eating them with a paste of lemongrass and chilli.

The Mediterranean chilli sauced snails with noodles. (Photo: Philip Potgieter)

I thought they might have noodles with theirs. In any case, we are doing our Mediterranean chilli sauced snails with some noodles today as a really easy and rather delicious dish. Then we’ve used the Stanley’s snails in Mediterranean herbs with a quickly seared rump steak. The layering of the two different umami tastes is something delightful.

In the Yeoville Food market I’ve seen snails the size of my fist from Ghana, wandering around on the floor. I believe they go into a tomatoey stew and are cut up into slices. Those are the Giant African land snails.

Although snails have been eaten since people ate food, much of their publicity came with the Romans in Europe. And today snails are being touted as a Future Food because of the great protein content they pack.

It was Romuald Denesle who, while he had A la Bouffe in Linden, told me a secret about where he got his snails: from a snail farm in Benoni. Benoni? He wouldn’t say more so I searched and found that all the French restaurants were in on the secret. It was Stanley and Heather Micallef’s venture, the first snail farm in South Africa. It had taken took them years of their own research and trials and errors. Snails don’t take up a lot of room so they were living and still live in and outside a house in Orange Road. 

There I had my first (not counting the lavender snail) snails without garlic. They were followed by a garlicky pesto eaten with the snails from their shells. The four different snail offerings today are all theirs too.

There’s a Frenchish restaurant in Parkhurst that presumably also orders from Stanley’s Snails and has on the menu Snails with Butter Café de Paris, another good old favourite from those fillet steaks and lobster bisques days. It was usually served on a steak as a melting round of butter mixture including anchovies, capers, a whole bunch of unrelated herbs like dill, tarragon, marjoram, parsley, rosemary and chives, plus a few glugs of an HP type sauce and some brandy-Masala type spirits. There’s no garlic in it.

It triggered a thought about Provençal food again. Herbes de Provence consist of a teaspoon of bay powder to a tablespoon each of dried oregano and tarragon, to two tablespoons each of dried rosemary, savory, thyme, basil, marjoram and lavender. Next time I get snails from Stanley’s, I’m going to make a butter with those Herbes de Provence. I haven’t quite finished with the lavender and snails yet. 

Then again, these are South African-farmed snails, so why not use a great South African herb. Snails with khakibos butter, anyone? DM/TGIFood

Stanley’s Snails 10 Orange Rd, Farrarmere, Benoni, 082 457 2951


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