Walk into any French restaurant, and you’re sure to see dishes featuring escargot on the menu. The most traditional preparation of escargot, which means “snail” in French, involves simmering the snails in wine, butter, garlic, and herbs. Once cooked, the chef places the snails back into cleaned shells or a specialized serving dish with small, snail-sized compartments. Usually served as an appetizer, escargot aficionados dip crusty bread into the garlic butter sauce as they enjoy this delicacy. It turns out the type of snails used in escargot are not the only ones people relish eating. We encourage you to get adventurous and try these five edible snails.
Edible Snails: A Little History
Many of us assume snails are just slimy garden creatures who crawl around on rocks near bodies of water. As it turns out, humans have consumed snails since prehistoric times. They are low in fat (minus the butter!) and high in protein and water. Europeans have long considered snails a delicacy. Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote about snail farms in A.D. 77. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of roasted snail shells from excavations around the Mediterranean Sea dating back 12,000+ years. Some historians even believe land snails were humanity’s first farmed animals — and most snails we eat today come from snail farms. Snails, which are in the Gastropoda class, live on land and in fresh and saltwater. Now let’s learn which gastropods will tempt our palates.
A few species fall under the category of Roman snails, all of which are small land snails. If you’ve ever enjoyed escargot, you were most likely eating Roman snails, either the species Helix pomatia or Helix aspera. People consume them for their rich, buttery flavor. You’ll see Roman snails in pasta, sauces, soups, and even as main dishes on European and North African tables.
Visit Piedmont, Italy, in early December, and you might get to attend “The Cold Fair of Bogo San Dalmazzo.” This 450-year-old festival celebrates the snail species Helix pomatia Alpina, a local snail variety. More than 25,000 people attend and consume 11,000 pounds of snails prepared in a variety of ways during this three-day feast. It’s not easy to find fresh snails, and even most restaurants use canned ones. You can order fresh or frozen ones online from Peconic Escargot or pick them up at their farm on New York’s Long Island. Peconic Escargot also shares a variety of escargot recipes on their blog, so if you can’t get out to restaurants during the current coronavirus pandemic, you can make savory dishes at home.
Unless you live on California’s coast, you might only know about abalone as a colorful, iridescent material used in jewelry and decorative household items. This saltwater marine snail lives in oceans around the world and is prized not only for its beautiful, bowl-shaped shell, but also for its delicious flavor. Abalones attach to rocks and have a shell on only one side of their bodies — and can grow as large as a dinner plate. Abalone connoisseurs enjoy this delicacy raw in sushi dishes and cooked in a variety of ways, from grilled to sautéed to fried. The meat texture is similar to squid (aka calamari) and tastes somewhat like a sea scallop.
Due to overfishing, wild abalone stocks are almost entirely gone, so most of what we consume today are farm-raised. Certified abalone divers are permitted to harvest wild abalone in some parts of the world, including California. Abalone is considered a luxury food item — and comes at a luxury price. On Hawaii’s Big Island, you can tour the Big Island Abalone, a 10-acre aquafarm in Kona, and purchase a 50-gram (about 1.776 ounces) can of abalone for about $30.
If you’ve visited the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, or Florida, you might have encountered conch, either its large, beautiful pink and white shell or in dishes such as conch fritters. Pronounced “konk,” this marine snail is revered throughout the Caribbean and Florida. In fact, the Queen Conch is one of three symbols you’ll find on the national Turks and Caicos flag. Key West, Florida’s most southern key, facetiously seceded from the U.S. in 1982 and renamed itself the “Conch Republic.” The Key West City Council was protesting stringent Border Patrol roadblocks on the only road into the Florida Keys. Agents were searching cars for illegal drugs, but council members felt like it was unnecessary harassment of the tourists headed to the island communities.
Conch’s firm white meat tastes similar to calamari. Fried fritters made with diced conch are one the most popular ways to enjoy conch, but it’s also delicious in chowder, ceviche, salads, and as “cracked conch,” where the meat is pounded flat and batter-fried. Most conch is farm-raised, and you can find it frozen in fresh seafood markets. If you can’t get to the Bahamas, you can make conch fritters at home with this recipe from Nassau Paradise Island.
Hailed as “poor man’s abalone,” whelks, another type of sea snail, receive adoration as well as disdain. In Victorian London (about 1840 through 1900), vendors sold boiled whelks out of wheelbarrows on the streets in poor neighborhoods. Reportedly, whelks were especially popular the morning after a heavy night of gin consumption. As a result, wealthier Londoners considered whelk consumption below their dignity. Today you’ll still find these spiral-shelled mollusks at seaside snack stands in the U.K. and in seafood dishes in France, where they call them bulots. Italians call them scungilli and often enjoy them in salads during the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes.
You don’t have to travel across the pond to enjoy whelk, which is tender, salty, and succulent when properly prepared. In California, Kellet's whelks show up in soups, pasta dishes, fish pies, and salads. On the East Coast, you’ll find a variety of whelk species in seafood-centric restaurants. Once considered a byproduct of catching other seafood in nets and cages, now whelks are valued as a food source. Unlike some of their cousins who can be consumed raw, they must be boiled before they are served or used in other preparations. You can also buy whelk by the pound in seafood markets. For a sampling of whelk recipes, check out this list from a Canadian commercial fishing operation based in Quebec.
If you’ve never heard of a limpet, you wouldn’t be alone. These cone-shaped aquatic snails attach themselves to rocks using one large “foot” in the intertidal zones and shallow seawater. They look like tiny mountains attached to rocks around the water’s edge. Like abalones, they only have a shell on one side. In some places, anglers use them as bait, but in many locations around the U.K., the Mediterranean Sea, and the Azores (islands off the coast of Portugal), locals consider them a delicious shellfish.
Some even eat them raw like an oyster only moments after knocking them loose from a rock! Sneaking up on them and knocking them off with a chisel or flat stone is the only way to harvest limpets. Once you touch their shell or the first tap doesn’t knock them loose, they strengthen their grip and are almost impossible to remove. You won’t find limpets on many restaurant menus around the world. However, in countless small communities around the Mediterranean, you’ll see locals and visitors eating them raw, grilled, sautéed, or boiled. Here’s a recipe for grilled limpets from a blogger who lives on Terceira, a tiny island in the Azores.