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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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FOOD & DRINK

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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