I distinctly recall the first time I ate snails: I was 9 years old and my then BFF, Elizabeth, was taking me to dinner at her favourite local restaurant, Francesco’s and we would be eating snails and veal Milanese because those were Liz’s favourites and that was that. Both were foreign and sounded a bit exotic to me and the idea of eating snails didn’t thrill me, but I was willing to try.
Thankfully, Francesco’s did good snails. I understood the appeal on first tender, buttery, garlicky bite. I have since had terrible snails and my relationship with them would be quite a lot different had any of those terrible snails been my introduction.
Snails are a bit like squid in that they typically come to us in an already “cooked” state (scare quotes because, whether they’re frozen or packed in a brine, those treatments alter their fresh state and remove that first possibility of tenderness with a fast heat treatment) so they need need a long bath in a lot of liquid to get them tender. Some snail-cookers don’t seem to get that. I myself have definitely made the mistake of pulling them straight from can to fire only to end up with little balls of dry, garlicky bubblegum. You guys, dry, garlicky bubblegum is not sexy.
After that first foray into the world of eating wallfish, I reported back to my stepdad that they were “really, really, really yummy” and then he blew my mind by telling about all of the different ways snails are prepared and eaten around the world and never, ever made me any of those dishes.
Into adulthood, I have made and eaten snails many different ways, but the following recipe is one of my favourites, especially for cold winter nights when I’m craving something not brown. The bright flavours in this dish hearken back to sunnier times and climes and really complement the mildly nutty and woody flavour of the snails. If you’ve never tried eating snails before, it’s a lovely and non-fussy introductory recipe. It makes 4 servings.
What you need:
- 200 g fettuccine (400 g fresh)
- 3 strips bacon
- 1/3 cup leek, white and green parts, diced
- 1/3 cup fennel bulb, diced
- 1/2 cup dry, white wine (once again, my trusty go-to is an unoaked pinot grigio)
- 1 cup veg or chicken stock (I had some shrimp bouillon on hand last night, so I used that!)
- 3 Roma tomatoes, diced
- 1/2 of a sweet bell pepper, diced
- 1 tsp chili flakes, or to taste
- 2 tsp herbes de provence
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- A good sprinkling, to taste, of freshly ground black pepper
- 1 115g can of snails (usually about 40)
- 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- A lemon, quartered
- Grated romano cheese and chili flakes for serving
What you do:
- In a large skillet, fry the bacon over medium heat until crisp, then set it aside.
- Toss the leeks and the fennel into the skillet and fry over medium heat until they just begin to brown, then set aside.
- Reduce the heat under the skillet to medium-low and toss in the tomatoes. Cook these until quite tender, then add the wine, 1/2 cup of stock, the herbs, the paprika, the sweet pepper, the black pepper and the snails. Let simmer for about 25 minutes, adding the remaining stock as needed to prevent the sauce from from drying out.
- While that’s happening, cook your fettuccine noodles al dente and rinse in cold water, then toss them in enough of the sauce liquids to coat.
- After the skillet mixture has simmered for 25 minutes, return the bacon, leeks and fennel to the skillet, taste test, season with salt and pepper accordingly and simmer for another 5 minutes, then stir in the parsley and pasta to heat up.
- Serve topped with the remaining parsley, finely grated Romano cheese, chili flakes and a wedge of lemon.