At the base of the nutrition of the ancient populations, in particular in the Mediterranean area, we find especially the slugs, even if it is more exact to talk about snails. The importance of snails in the culinary European scenery is grown more and more, allowing the opening of many factories specialized in the “elicicoltura”, which create a more exigent production, enhancing and exporting snails worldwide.
History and curiosities
Since ancient times, men always had the necessity to feed with the gifts from Mother Nature. In this way, it started to be practiced the first basics about agriculture, hunting and animal breeding, enhancing and expanding more and more during the centuries. In this scenery we find in particular the habit to eat and breed snails.
The first evidences of this particular food date back in very ancient ages. The name of snails, in fact, derives from the terms “kochlìas”, in ancient Greek, and “cochlea”, in Latin. Many Greek and Latin authors and sages that put snails in their poems, confirming that they were famous and appreciated even many centuries ago.
The Latin poet Marziale, in one of his famous epigrams, let an ordinary spoon talk, because its Italian name, “cucchiaio”, seems to be thought exactly for its utility to “pulling out snails from their shell”. According to the historian Sallustio, instead, snails had an important role during the Jugurthine war. In this conflict between Latins and Giugurta, king of Numidia, a hungry Roman soldier went to find some snails, discovering a secret access to the castle of Numids, with an important advantage for his army.
In his “Naturalis historia”, Plinio describes the first, basic snail breeding, which had a large and commercial aspect, thanks to the smart intuition of Fulvio Lippino, considered the historical promoter of elicicoltura.
Therefore, snails started to be bred even in small domestic enclosures, called “cocleari”, in order to eat them even in the poorer tables.
According to the culinary techniques of Ancient Latins, as handed down by the agronomist Apicio, snails were left to flush out for many days in milk, and then they were fried or roasted and finally eaten with the traditional “garum”, a liquid sauce with fish, similar to the modern anchovy paste.
The Greek physician and pharmacist Dioscoride mentioned the importance of snails in the ancient culinary tradition even in a document, in which he said that snails are a great food, but difficult to digest. According to the author Orazio, instead, some kinds of snails, as those from Africa, represented a useful food to contrast stomach burning. In fact snails were also used as a remedy for gastric ulcers.
Snails continue to appear in other documents of the Middle Age and Renaissance, especially in cooking books of this period. Among the famous connoisseurs of snails, we find especially Leonardo da Vinci. Before starting to dedicate to the arts that would have made him famous forever, the polyhedral artist, in fact, worked as chef in the restaurant “Le Tre Lumache” (The Three Snails). Here, he reached a great knowledge about snails, which were served everyday with butter and parsley.
The Italian tradition of snails would have been exported even foreign in these years. The French, in fact, would have liked snails so much to make them an elegant recipe, as it is demonstrated by the dishes with escargot, cooked still today.
In the following period until now, snails have been often the object of many discussions, representing maybe the most controversial food, now elevated as an elegant food, now depreciated as poor meal.
Anyway, starting from the first years of 1800s, culinary experts reached a unique and solid opinion about snails, definitely considered a nutrient and elegant food.
The elicicoltura – this is the specific name of snails breeding – was able to diffuse its ambits more and more during the centuries, especially thanks to the use of innovative methods, but not too far from the tradition. Now we have two main techniques: open-air and indoor.
The open-air system is certainly the most used. Small and large factories choose to dedicate entire lands to the snails breeding, monitoring carefully all the aspects necessary for a good grown of snails. Soils, rich in vegetables adapted to feed and protect snails, are surrounded by specific grids, which are anti-run and anti-slime, and also resistant to UV rays, harmful for their surviving. Each grid divides the sector for the reproduction and the one for snails growing. Soils must be watered regularly, allowing the growing of vegetation and especially inviting snails to exit their shell, as they would be normally during a rainy day. The principle on which the open-air system bases is to create the same growing conditions present in nature.
The indoor system, instead, uses some covered greenhouses, in which the growing conditions for snails are reproduced in an artificial way. The limits of this kind of breeding are linked especially to the lower possibility to stare at the sun and natural humidity, essential for snails’ life.
In both cases, the first step consists in the introduction of brood snails, ready to reproduce. They are hermaphrodites animals, so there is not a distinction between male and female. On the contrary, all the brood snails are able to reproduce between them, laying eggs in 20 days, which in a few days will give life to new snails. Each brood snail can lay at least a hundred eggs, so the production will be very large.
The newborn snails are free to eat and grown without any interference in their habitat, until they become adult. In this period they are harvest and flush out, and then they can be sold.
Obviously, not all the snails are good for cooking. Among the most indicated species we find in particular Helix Aspersa Muller, also called “lumacone”, Theba Pisana (“lumachelle”, “babbaluci”, “bovoli”), Eobania Vermiculata (“rigatella”) and Helix Aperta (“monachelle”). Each of these species has different characteristics, which make them adapted for specific combinations and cooking methods.
Taste and characteristics
Contrary to what has been expressed by the Greek physician Dioscoride, snails are a very digestible food and extremely rich in proteins and minerals. This is one of reason for which snails represented the ideal meal for children, the elderly and convalescents. The nutritional fact is elevated, thanks to the presence of a large amount of carbohydrates and essential proteins.
Snails are one of the richest in amino acid foods, essential for our body, in an amount that reaches the one of eggs and fish. Snails are also rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, while they are almost lack in saturated and monounsaturated, considered “bad” for our health.
The diet full of good quality vegetables, as the most expert breeders ensure, gives to the snails an elevated amount of minerals, which derives exactly by the eaten plants. In particular, they are rich in calcium, phosphor, magnesium, potassium, iron and copper.
For what concerns the taste, we can obtain a better gustative experience, eating snails that have been bred with care and scrupulousness. We talk about snails bred open-air, protected by the sunrays and fed with good vegetables, lack in pesticides and chemical substances. In these cases, snails assume the same taste of the eaten vegetables. They have a very delicate taste, so they require a quite bodied combination, able to exalt their taste and characteristics.
Snails have some excellent properties, so that so elicicoltura has enlarged its horizons even to cosmetic and naturopathic fields. In particular, it seems that snail’s slime can contrast inflammations, infections and cell damages. This theory has been confirmed basing on a certain fact. After the sad events of Chernobyl, it was observed that the only living specie that resulted immune by the radiations was exactly the snails. From this observation, researchers discovered the benefic effects of snail’s slime.
For this reason, slime started to be used to realize great creams and serums, to contrast the cutaneous ageing and also to produce syrups and other homeopathic remedies, useful in case of inflammations or bacterial infections. It seems also that “elicina” – snail’s slime – has effects similar to those of the streptomycin, one of the most used antibiotics.
There is no cooking book without a typical dish with snails. This uncommon ingredient, so discussed during the years, is actually very appreciated in Italy and foreign. Think, for example, about the elegant French cooking, which made escargot its national proud.
To cook snails, it is necessary to flush them out before. This passage is very important, because it avoid bad sensation at the palate and digestive problems, due to the presence of residuum of soil, herb and vegetable in the snails’ body. For this reason, choose always alive and flushed out snails. Instead, if you want to gather them during your walks, remember to flush them out accurately. Generally, the flushing is made letting stand snails in a recipient or a small net, for at least 3-5 days. You can choose to leave them without food or you can add bran or corn flour, without exaggerating. During this period, snails can be washed many times, to remove slime and impurities. Finally, they are ready for cooking.
The choice of the combination can vary depending on the region. In the Northern area, and in particular in Trentino, snails are eaten with the classical polenta, cooked in a pan with abundant oil, butter and onions, to which is added some tomato salsa concentrated. Snails are placed on a thin layer of polenta, entire or in small pieces, and then salsa is poured on the top. In alternative, boiled snails can be cooked in abundant sautéed and red wine for a long time.
In the Southern culinary tradition, instead, they prefer to leave snails natural, seasoning them with butter and Mediterranean herbs. A typical recipe of Southern Italy combines snails with boiled potatoes, parsley and oregano.
On the contrary, snails “alla romana” are made cooking them in a sauce with fresh tomatoes, oil, garlic, chili, mint and anchovies.
In the elegant French cuisine, instead, escargot are cooked with abundant butter and chopped parsley, but we can find even a recipe very famous worldwide: snails “alla Bourguignonne”. This is an elegant and pleasant dish, made filling snails’ shells with a mixture of butter and aromatic herbs, which melts in the oven, creating a succulent sauce.
Snails are also perfect fried. You can just remove them from their shell, immerse them in the beaten eggs and grated bread, frying them in abundant hot vegetal oil.
The recipes with snails are really numerous, because it is a particularly versatile and ancient food. The general rule while cooking snails is to be generous with butter and aromatic herbs, selecting what you prefer.
For what concerns wines, choose them always depending on the recipe. A strong and intense dish, as polenta with salsa or fried snails, requires a wine that can tolerate the strong ingredients. For example, you can choose a typical product from Trentino, as the white Trentino Sauvignon DOC, especially in the versions Riserva or Vendemmia, more bodied, or a Sangiovese di Romagna DOC, red and slightly bitter. In all the other cases, instead, you can prefer a white wine, soft and not too acid, as a good Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC, delicate and slightly bitter, or a Greco di Tufo DOCG, typical of the area of Avellino.