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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

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

When travelling through France ordering local dishes and drinks is always a good bet, so we're taking a virtual roadtrip through France, highlighting some of the must-try regional specialities.

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

This section of our roadtrip takes in the central part of France, from the tourist hotspots of the Alps and west coast seaside resorts through the less well know (but wonderful) central regions. 

The following is just our personal recommendation for some of the areas we’re passing through – please leave your suggestions and foodie tips in the comments box below.

Savoie/Haut-Savoie – Extremely popular for winter sports, the French Alps are stunning all year round and a summer trip for hiking, cycling or water sports is also highly recommended. The long, cold winters and the popularity of sporty holidays means that many Savoie specialities tend towards the hearty, filling, cheese-based and calorific – fondue, raclette and tartiflette.

What to order: It has to be fondue – but this is really a winter dish. Although some tourist spots sell it in summer it’s best enjoyed after a hard day hiking or skiing while watching the snow swirl around outside your window. The basics of a fondue are always the same – a big pot of melted cheese and some bread to dip in – but there are many varieties based on cheese type. We prefer a mixed-cheese option to get the full flavour spectrum, in the spirit of going local let’s order the Fondue Savoyard.

To drink: Wine! Old Swiss and French grannies will tell you that drinking water with fondue can be fatal, as it causes the cheese to solidify and stick in your stomach. As far as we know this has never been proven with science, but it’s definitely true that a crisp white wine is perfect to cut through the rich, fatty cheese.

Opt for a local vin jaune for the perfect partner.  

 
 
 
 
 
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Lyon – you might think that the whole of France is a foodie destination, but to French people Lyon is the ‘foodie capital’, and for that reason it’s a highly popular staycation destination with the French. Definitely check out the ‘bouchon’ restaurants which specialise in the best in local cuisine. 

What to order: Brioche de pralines rosé. There are so many delicious Lyon savoury specialities that it’s hard to pick one so we’ve gone for a sweet treat here. Pink pralines (nuts in a sugar coating) are the city’s signature sweet and while they’re great on their own, for an extra indulgent treat you can get brioche (sweet bread) studded with pink pralines. A slice (or two) with a pot of coffee is quite possibly the world’s best breakfast.

And to drink:  Beaujolais. Stick with us here, there’s more to beaujolais than the much-derided beaujolais nouveau (although that is getting better these days). The wine appellation extends almost to Lyon and is home to hundreds of small vineyards all making beautiful wines, many of whom are taking up production of vins bio (organic) or vins naturel.  

 
 
 
 
 
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READ ALSO: Bio, natural or biodynamic: 5 things to know about French organic wines

Auvergne – central France tends to get missed by many tourists, which is a real shame because much of it is stunning, as well as being quieter and cheaper than the coastal areas. The area is dotted with mountains and (extinct) volcanoes which give it a really dramatic character.

What to order: Auvergnat cuisine is quite meat-based, although the region is also known for good cheeses. To combine the two into one meal, we highly recommend aligot – a type of silky, creamy mashed potato with lots of stringy cheese stirred in – topped with a sausage. Have this at a restaurant with a glass or good wine or buy it from a street stall and go watch the town’s famous rugby team. Either way, the experience will be sublime.

And to drink: Volvic. Those volcanoes that we mentioned earlier give the name to one of France’s most famous mineral waters – Volvic. The water is apparently filtered through six layers of rock for five years, so give your liver a rest and sample some.

 
 
 
 
 
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Corrèze – moving west takes us into Corrèze, one of France’s most sparsely populated départements and one that even some French people would struggle to point to on a map. Transport is not all that easy unless you have a car but if it’s well worth the effort to visit this hidden but lovely corner of France.

What to order: Savoury dishes often feature mushrooms (especially ceps) and chestnuts and freshwater fish such as perch are also popular but we’re going to pick a dessert – clafoutis. The baked fruit flan is hugely popular across France but is traditional in Corrèze – in the classic form it’s made with cherries, but lots of different fruit options are available.

And to drink: They grow a lot of nuts in Corrèze and as well as eating them, they’re often made into digéstifs as well. If by this stage of the roadtrip you are feeling a little heavy, try an after-dinner liqueur to help you digest (although, despite the name scientists claim that a digéstif doesn’t actually help digestion).

 
 
 
 
 
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Île d’Oléron – We’ve now reached the west coast, and just off the shore of the Vendée are two beautiful islands. Île de Ré is known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because it’s such a popular holiday destination for rich Parisians, while its smaller brother Île d’Oléron is less high profile but equally lovely.

What to order: This area is the centre of France’s oyster production and if you take a trip around the island (or on the mainland) you will see hundreds of oyster beds. Virtually all local restaurants serve them, but you’ll also see them piled high at markets, where the stallholders will shuck them for you if you’re afraid of losing a finger in the process.

And to drink: The island is known for its white wines which pair perfectly with oysters. Stop off at the market for a quick glass (and an oyster or two) when you’ve finished your shopping or buy a bottle, plus a platter of oysters and have a picnic. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Head to our Food & Drink section to find guides to the regional specialities of southern and northern France.

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