The escargots from Burgundy are the most gastronomically prized in the snail world. The largest and rarest, maturing only after 3 years, they stand head and shell above the run-of-the-mill petit gris. While the common petit gris thrives in captivity, the burgundy or roman snail, first prepared by the Romans as an early grilled canapé to be enjoyed with wine, cannot. They are difficult to rear and remain a delicacy only to be hand-picked in the wild at certain times of the year, under French law.
Over the summer holidays my family and I were fortunate enough to stay in Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy’s most southern department. By even greater luck our August visit fell outside of the reproductive period protected under the 1979 French law (1st April- 30th June). As an avid fan of the region’s garlic butter à la bourginonne snails, only one path lay ahead: forage for the most succulent molluscs in our back garden and truly prepare them from scratch. Yes, from scratch, even if five days of hard work lay ahead, this was our chance to test out their true gastronomic credentials.
Working from a rather enticing recipe of Michel Roux Jr’s whose legendary family incidentally hails from Burgundy, the five day preparation process was stalled by the third hottest summer on record since 1900. With the elusive escargots shy in sunshine but roaming in rain, we had to wait a fortnight for the heavens to open before my snail devotee daughters and I could set out to unearth the juiciest 4.5cm long of the 2015 crop (under 3cm and they are also protected under French law). Our eyes lit up at the sight of one gros escargot after another – their whitish grey flesh falling out from under their tawny yellow and brown streaked shells, they flaunted their future succulence at us in the most flirtatious way. While my husband looked on in horror, despite his very respectable history of gorging on the garlicy prepared gastropods, my 5- and 7-year old daughters flinched not as they stealthily prized and lifted them off grasses and verge. Despite all our efforts, raiding the hectare left us with a rather smaller crop than we’d imagined – an entrée of eight that left us very short of the gluttonous dozen we’d hoped for.