Land snails, known as “escargot” in France, are a widespread ingredient in the Italian culinary tradition. These molluscs, belonging to the gastropods class, are invertebrate animals which move by gliding along on their muscular foot and use their shell to protect themselves from adverse weather conditions and outside attacks. There are many edible species of land snails. The most common ones to be used in cooking are the Helix Pomatia, the Helix Aspersia, the Cornum Aspersum and the Eobania Vermiculata. It’s good to know that the best time of the year to buy and consume land snails goes from October to April.
Differences between snails and slugs
Even though they are extremely evident, it’s important to clarify the differences between snails and slugs, since these terms are sometimes used improperly in everyday language.
The most obvious difference is that snails have a shell, while slugs don’t. This is the visual characteristic that allows us to immediately differentiate the two species.
Slugs, which don’t have the typical and structured snail shell, mainly eat foods that are harmful to humans, such as poisonous mushrooms like Amanita phalloides, and are therefore inedible.
Both slugs and snails, pulmonate gastropod molluscs belonging to the edible species of the Helicidae family, love shady and humid places. Snails can be cooked inside their shell, like snails “alla siciliana”, or without it and are best served with different types of salsa, but only after purging them. In fact, snails need to be cleaned from slime, faeces and other impurities before cooking them.
How to purge land snails
Before cooking them, snails need to be fasted in a closed, possibly shady and well ventilated space, in order to clean away slime, faeces and other toxic residues. This procedure is called purge and lasts 2-3 days. Once the snails have been purged, they are boiled in water, then taken out of their shells and prepared according to the local tradition, for example “alla bolognese”, “alla marchigiana”, “all’abruzzese”, “alla borgognona” or stewed. Autumn and winter are the best seasons to consume snails, since during this period their meat is tasty and fragrant. For more details, you can read our article on how to clean land snails.
Nutritionally speaking, snails are a dietetic and highly nutritious food, with a good amount of protein (13-14%) and low fat content (1,5-2%). Note that snails contain all the essential amino acids and a lot of iron and calcium, as well as other minerals, and that 100 grams of meat provide approximately 70Kcal.
That’s why snails are an ideal choice for people with hypercholesterolemia and hypertriglyceridemia, as well as for slimming diets, provided you are careful in the choice of seasonings and dressings!
Interesting facts: In times past, snails were swallowed alive to treat gastritis and gastric ulcers. Nowadays, snail slime is used in anti-age cosmetic products and as a remedy for cough.
Article by Dott. Maurizio Fiocca