They’re small, grey and slimy and they’re inching their way onto more restaurant menus across Australia.
Snails, or escargot, are a celebrated staple of French cuisine. They’re commonly served in walnut-coloured shells, brimming with a green, garlicky parsley butter and accompanied by a crisp baguette.
But it is modern interpretations of the classic dish that have allowed snails to gain momentum.
For some French restaurants, such as Melbourne’s Bar Margaux, even a little twist is enough to win over hesitant diners.
Bar Margaux executive chef Adrian Corigliano serves a boozier version of the traditional escargot de Bourgogne by infusing the butter with anise-flavoured liqueur Pernod.
“[Snails] can be scary, they’re not something that everyone grows up eating,” says Kari Gillies, Bar Margaux’s marketing manager.
“But this has become such a fan favourite.”
At Sydney’s newest French-inspired restaurant, Manon Brasserie, head chef Thomas Boisselier takes a saucier approach, serving snails stripped of their shells.
Boisselier uses flavours of garlic and parsley as a foundation, then builds upon it with a strong red wine and bacon sauce, and a slice of garlic butter-infused toast.
“I didn’t think it would be a hit, but it’s crazy popular,” Boisselier says.
“People are becoming a lot more open minded. They’re trying [snails] and realising they were turned off by the idea of them, rather than the flavour or the texture.”
Snails have become so popular they’ve even made it onto pub menus. At The Clock, in Surry Hills, head chef Luke McEnally decided to swap schnitzels for snails.
“French food is going off in Sydney, so more and more people are coming around to it,” McEnally says.
Australian snail-eaters are most likely to be served Helix aspersa, or Petit gris, the same species of pest that like to have a midnight chomp in backyard vegetable gardens.
“The texture is really nice and crisp, almost like calamari, and the flavour is sort of earthy, like a very mild mushroom,” says Robyn Schrader, owner of Yarra Valley Snails.
Schrader is one of a handful of Australian producers to attempt snail farming. Despite their prolific breeding, snails are surprisingly difficult to produce in commercial quantities.
They require healthy crops (such as kale or canola), more than 12 months to reach maturity, and an intense preparation process involving purging, boiling and desliming.
Demand vastly outstrips supply, forcing the vast majority of Australian restaurants to rely on tinned, overseas imports (shells sold separately).
Boisselier is one of a select few chefs who will be able to source fresh snails from La Perouse Escargot in Tasmania come spring. He says preparing fresh snails is “a lot more” time consuming, but ultimately worth the effort.
“It gives [diners] the full experience,” he says, explaining fresh snails are less chewy, a little smaller, and able to absorb more flavour.
Despite his best efforts, head chef of Sydney restaurant Hubert Alexis Besseau wasn’t so fortunate.
“I prefer to use fresh, locally sourced ingredients, but there just aren’t many people who want to [farm smails] here,” he says.
Besseau takes considerable care to transform the pasteurised snails from garden pests into one of Hubert’s most recognisable dishes: escargot in a buttery, briney, XO sauce.
“It’s got a little hit of spice but it doesn’t overpower the taste of the snail,” Besseau says.
“It’s been one of our bestsellers since we opened.”
Snails become ever more palatable when hidden within buttery layers of flaky, puffed pastry.
At Smith Street Bistro, in Collingwood, head chef Victor Blain serves snails in a vol-au-vent with parsnip puree.
“We braise the snails with bacon, carrot and aromats for around three hours, until they’re nice and tender,” Blain says.
“It’s one of our top three dishes.”
Billy Hannigan, head chef of Milsons Point bistro Loulou, takes things one step further with a snail scroll.
“It’s a play on the sweet snail scroll you see in bakeries,” Hannigan says.
“Instead of rum-soaked raisins and almonds, we use snails roasted in garlic and thyme, a French seeded-mustard bechamel sauce and a little bit of smoked speck.
“They’re not the prettiest looking creatures, but they’re something people expect to see on a French menu.”