On the Trail of the Local Snail
In one way or another, Austin has it escargot-ing on
Where can you find good snails in this town? Not just any snails, but good eatin' snails, snails cooked up all tender and tasty with butter and herbs and spices, your literal garden-variety mollusks lovingly presented for nomming in the form of what's best known as escargot?
A number of decent places serve them regularly, it turns out. Justine's Brasserie. Péché. Le Politique. Chez Nous. Fabi + Rosi. Elizabeth Street Cafe. Toulouse. Gino's Vino Osteria. And – should we just keep Googling for you, citizen, or would you prefer a more substantial bit of meat from this shell?
Like, are we talking about canned snails or are we talking about fresh snails? In these locavore-happy times, you'd think that something with the whiff of cultural fanciness that escargot's accrued, you'd think the creatures would be ganked right off the leaves of a restaurant's adjoining herb garden and popped into a hot skillet minutes before they reach your plate. Or, at the very least, would be organically raised at some urban farm just a few blocks past that last Mattress Firm.
But that's not the case at all. Not locally, anyway. Not in Texas.
Back in 1995, a fellow up in Addison named Richard Fullington started a business called Escargot International that – as reported by Patricia Sharpe in Texas Monthly around that time – was poised to conquer (or at least engulf a solid chunk of) the global market for fresh and frozen snails. And they would've been well on the way to doing that, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling bacteria. Because, in 1997, the increasingly successful Escargot International had a suspected listeria contamination that affected products shipped to a dozen different states; and then, possibly cause-and-effect, in 2001, the corporation was legally dissolved. Like so much snail slime, you might say, under the harsh Texas sun. Sic transit gloria mollusca.
Not that canned snails are necessarily a bad thing. Whether they're Escal or Saveur de la Terre or Roland brand – the latter of which you can even buy at Fiesta – a canned snail will comport itself admirably against your palate, to a greater or lesser extent that depends on the skills and knowledge of whoever cooked it. All these local restaurants with snails regularly on the menu? Those varmints are canned – and tasty AF. Nothing that would reflect poorly on the snail tongs (aka snongs) or snail forks (aka snorks) you'd use to eat them with.
But, still. Nothing gets much better than fresh, right? Which is why we asked Sonya Coté, that excellent locavore chef of Eden East and Hillside Farmacy fame – who recently announced that she'll keep Springdale Farm running and continue Eden East's on-site operations, too – if she knew of any locally sourced options.
"I've been wanting to raise snails for years," she told us. "Personally, I've never cooked them. But I know a chef in town who used to have the kids collect them, and he would purge them on fresh veg – not sure if he sold them to the public. But if you hear of anyone raising them, let me know!"
Well, we haven't yet heard of anyone raising them. But we have heard of people, local chefs or their associates, foraging them. (Note: Foraging snails is a perfectly sensible gambit, as the species you get from imported cans are the same species – or damned close enough – Helix aspersa or Cornu aspersum – that you can find sliming around your Central Texas lawn after a good rain.)
"No snaily babies here," Kati Grant-Luedecke of Killa Wasi told us, "but I know Dai Due was doing fresh local a while back." Which figures, as Dai Due's Jesse Griffiths is renowned for ... well, is there anything the man can't forage?
The first place we tried escargot in this town, trying to recapture a flavor vaguely recalled from a childhood overseas, was Elizabeth Street Cafe. The snails there are fabulous, all spiced up with what culinarily resulted after French Colonialism was visited upon Vietnam back in the day, presented in a dish with discrete indentations for each individual snail, accompanied by bread so exquisitely baked that you might stab a cousin to get a bigger share of it. So we gave Elizabeth Street a call and talked to executive chef Danny Parada.
"Yeah, we use canned snails here," Parada told us. "We use a recipe of Tommy Moorman's. He's one of the guys who owns this place – and Perla's and Lambert's and all. But when I worked at Emmer & Rye, we'd have snails on the menu sometimes, and those were foraged."
"We did have a forager who brought us snails," confirmed Emmer & Rye's chef Kevin Fink. "The common snail to forage in Texas is the petit gris. They're all over, and Texas in many ways has an overpopulation. But we truly focus on doing Texas ingredients, and I don't know of any that are canned here, so we only used fresh and wild ones. Most were found in citrus fields and therefore ate a lot of orange or lime leaves. We'd do them in a Thai style or serve them with aged butter and garlic and grilled bread. There's a massive difference between canned snails and fresh, as you know."
As we'd assumed, anyway. And, with corroboration from the likes of the award-winning Fink, we're almost scared to imagine how much better snails could taste than the post-can variations we've already enjoyed around town. At Chez Nous, for instance, where the toothsome gastropods arrived tableside in a ceramic boat, awash in melted butter and herbs, intermingled with a savory crowd of champignons. Just as tasty as you'd expect from a French restaurant that's remained in business – in the same location – for more than 40 years.
"They're good, aren't they?" said our waitress, Jenn Daly, an Austin foodservice stalwart who's worked numerous kitchen and front-of-house gigs in this town since starting out at Les Amis in the mid-Nineties. "You know," she said, clearing away a lunchtime plate, "after this shift, I'm going to my other job, at wink. And the chefs there have been talking about snails lately. I think we're gonna be doing some snail specials this summer." Well, wink co-owner Mark Paul is a member of Slow Food International, after all. So, slow foods ... snails ...
[Pause for laughter, or damning lack thereof.]
But it all makes sense, n'est-ce pas? Because, fresh or canned, foraged or unpackaged, no matter where you devour them, snails are a popular dish in this rapidly growing Texas city of ours. And they, the sustained farming of them, could even be a business opportunity.
So, all you young, bright-eyed, caffeine-swilling entrepreneurs out there? You start something up, give us a holler so we can pass the news along, okay? We'll be right here, waiting, snorks and snongs ready for action.