Again, I’ll ask: what is the absolute most French food you can think of?
If it’s not frog’s legs, then it’s got to be escargot. Another dish that confuses and even disturbs many Americans, snails are considered a traditional component of gastronomic history in France. But it’s not just the French – archaeological evidence suggests that snails have been on the menu in Mediterranean regions since prehistoric times. Other cultures eat snails as well – Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and some Asian countries all include snails as a common (or at least socially acceptable) menu item. For whatever reason, though, snails have been associated most strongly with French cuisine. Theories on this include the legacy of the Roman Empire (which is credited with popularizing snails in cuisine) in tandem with France’s rigid penchant for maintaining gastronomic traditions and inarguable global culinary influence.
Escargot is traditionally eaten in France as an appetizer. The snails are purged, killed, extracted from the shell, cooked, and then placed back inside the shell for presentation. Common preparations include various combinations of wine, butter, garlic, chicken stock, pesto, or herbs. There are even specialized serving trays and instruments for the ceremony of eating snails. While the deliciousness of snails is debatable, French escargot consumption is an inarguable fact. A 2005 study estimates French snail consumption at around 40,000 tons a year, while a more recent survey reports numbers up to 65,000 tons. However, according to French government numbers, snail production in France has fallen dramatically in recent years, from a peak of 1500 tons in 2005 to 956 tons in 2010. As a result, France is one of the largest importers of snails in the world, mainly from Greece, Turkey, Romania, and Belgium.
Ultimately the French escargot industry is in danger of being driven out by foreign competition and foreign pests.
The escargot industry is shrinking in France, due to overconsumption, foreign competition, and environmental factors. One big concern is the New Guinea flatworm, an invasive species from Southeast Asia that wipe out entire populations of snails. Likely brought through imported produce, these flatworms are a direct and physical effect of increased international trade as France integrates more completely in the global market, something the French have vocally resisted but economically embraced. Another big concern is the misleading labeling on escargot; since it is not considered meat, its origins are not legally required to be specified. This has lead to many chefs, producers, and restaurateurs advertising snails as “French” and marking them up as traditional French varieties would be, while really buying cheap Eastern European versions. Ultimately the French escargot industry is in danger of being driven out by foreign competition and foreign pests.
But was France ever really destined to produce these slimy creatures? Snails thrive in hot, rainy weather; France’s climate is a bit too cold for them. How this strange dish became an embedded part of French identity is as much as mystery as why it persists to this day. At this point, snail consumption has taken on a nostalgic traditional form of French identity affirmation in the face of globalization and all the changes it brings; but globalization itself threatens snails in France to the point where they are no longer French.
Is it time to give up escargot?