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READER QUESTIONS

Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why do the French eat snails?

In this mini series, The Local answers common questions that comes up when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

A French snail breeder prepares some escargots de Bourgogne.
A French snail breeder prepares some escargots de Bourgogne. Snails have become emblematic of French cuisine. (Photo by JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP)

Why do the French . . . eat snails?

In truth most French people have never actually eaten snails, known as escargots. They are generally seen as a food of the elite – or a novelty for tourists, so how did they get to be emblematic of French cuisine?

France remains world’s number one consumer of snails, going through about 30,000 tonnes every year. It only produces between 5 and 10 percent of these, however, the rest are imported, mostly from Eastern Europe and North Africa.

According to a parliamentary report, the three main species consumed here are the garden snail (Helix aspersa), the land snail (helix lucorum) and the prized Bourgogne snail (helix pomatia). 

The shelled creatures are typically removed from their shells, dried, then cooked in a broth, placed back into their shells and smeared in garlic butter before being served up. 

Ancient origins 

Hunter gatherers in a land that was yet to be named France were eating snails as far back as the 8,000 years ago. By this point in pre-history, humans had learned how to make fire – which is just as well because eating snails raw can lead to serious food poisoning. 

There is also evidence that the ancient Greeks and after then, the ancient Romans were eating snails not long after the death of Jesus, as seen in the writings of Pliny the Elder. 

At this point in time, there was nothing specifically French about snail consumption. In fact, people in many countries in Europe, Africa and South Asia still eat snails today. These creatures are high in protein and low in fat (until you smother them in butter). 

So when did eating snails become French? 

The turning point in France came in 1814 thanks to the a man named Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who would go on to become the first ever Prime Minister of France. 

At the time, Talleyrand was serving as the country’s Foreign Minister, under King Louis XVIII. 

Tsar Alexander of Russia was in France on a state visit and Talleyrand was eager to impress. He asked his chef, a man named Marie-Antoine Carême, to prepare a dish that the Tsar would never have tried before. 

Carême opted for snails with garlic, parsley and butter – which at the time was a local delicacy in Burgundy, the region that he hailed from. 

The Tsar was allegedly so impressed by the dish that he regularly requested further servings throughout the rest of his stay and even on his return to Russia. For much of his reign, Alexandre I remained closely allied with France – although to be fair, he also frequently changed his mind and went to war with the country. 

In any case, the Tsar’s visit marked a watershed moment for French snail consumption – the dish became emblematic of culinary and diplomatic success and its popularity soared well into the 20th century. 

In 2017, the Bourgogne snail became a protected species. It’s cultivation, which happens mostly in the East of France, is carefully regulated. 

There are 350-400 snail farms in France today. 

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Member comments

  1. My grandparents were eating snails in Somerset back in the early 20th century. It was a small mining village with three pits, two pubs, one church and two chapels. So there was a lot of religion… and according to the devout you didn’t eat meat on a Friday. And if you couldn’t afford fish (and many clearly couldn’t) you were OK eating ‘wall fish’ – which is what they called snails.

  2. The Bourgogne snail only thrives on chalky soils and is also very slow to mature (around 2 years) hence its relative scarcity. There is a relic population in Kent that was purportedly introduced by the Romans and is now protected.

    There are two varieties of Helix aspersa – a giant strain hailing from North Africa and the more common garden variety – known in French as gros-gris and petit-gris respectively. The latter seems to be the preferred one for farming in France.

    They are okay to eat but I prefer the Cretan preparation – loads more flavour 🙂

    The reason there are so few snail farmers in the country where they are most consumed is largely down to the hurdles placed on entry for new farmers by its guild – these are onerous and illogical and unless changed will effectively kill off the industry in the not too distant future.

  3. For me the chief attraction of escargots is the “snail butter”, to be mopped up with crusty baguette.

  4. Over here in the Aube snails and snail collectors are (actually were) until recently common. Peasant food and delicious. Nothing to do do with the rich. Mother in law and aunts appeared at a certain time of year to collect in the pasture at the bottom of our garden and a couple of weeks later a meal would start with snails. I (british) held the record for consuming 47 snails before 5 course meal began.

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CULTURE

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?

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