One of the most famous dishes in French cuisine is escargot, a preparation of snails that can be served with a variety of sauces. Some American consumers find the thought somewhat disconcerting, as snails are not associated with food in the United States. Americans eat other mollusks, however, such as abalone, and some adventurous diners do try snails at least once for the experience. When well prepared, their flavor and texture can be quite delightful, and they have been enjoyed in many Mediterranean nations for centuries.
While people who are not from France think that the word refers to a specific dish, in fact it is a generic term for edible snails. The most common preparation is boiling or steaming, and the snails are often served in the shell on a special plate that has small depressions for each shell. Diners use tongs to extract the flesh from the shell, along with small two-tined snail forks, and then dip the snail into the sauce provided. A garlic and butter sauce is the most common, but wine sauces and others are not unusual.
Snails can be collected in the wild or farmed for prepared escargot. Farmed snails are fed on a mixture of green and dried foods, with some producers preferring dried food because it is less messy than fresh greens. Some cooks also feed the snails herbs like dill to give them a delicate flavor. Either way, the snails must go through a period of fasting that usually lasts for one week before being prepared to cleanse their intestines, which can make the dish turn bitter if not completely emptied. During the fasting period, the creatures are kept in wooden ventilated boxes and food is withheld. The snails are gently washed every other day in running water, which stimulates them to empty their guts.
Some cooks salt their snails, producing a large amount of foam that removes the last of their impurities. Others simply throw the snails into salted boiling water for cooking before draining them and bringing them to the table to eat, either as an appetizer or an entree. Simmering the snails in a white wine can also add to the flavor, and in addition to being served plain, escargot can be tossed with pasta or used to stuff vegetables for appetizers.