An enterprising Roman farmer brought snail farming into the mainstream many centuries ago, but people have been eating these mollusks for much longer. Here, a history of snails and a recipe to try.
A photo I took of the cooked snails put back in shells, with a bit of parsley.
They may be most familiar on the menus of French restaurants, but snails have been regarded as delicacies for a long, long time.
Thousands of artificial mounds made of snail shells — called escargotières — have been found across Algeria and Tunisia, dating all the way to the Paleolithic Age (over 6,000 years old in this case). Other land snail shells have been found clustered near human remains from Spain to Ukraine. It’s safe to say that snails and people go back a ways — they may even lay claim to the earliest domesticated animals!
Despite such a long history, it wasn’t until the first century BC that snail rearing arrived in Rome. We’re able to learn from Pliny the Elder that the first Roman snail farmer was a man by the name of Fulvius Lippinus. From his rural estate near Tarquinia, Lippinus popularized (and perfected, he might have claimed) snail farming.
The author Varro tells that Lippinus raised a wide array of snail species, from small, white snails from the former’s native town of Reate (central Italy) to giant African snails called solitannae.
Though Lippinus looked after all types of snails, he created a standard technique to raise them for eating. From what it seems, his mollusks were fed a mixture of sapa and flour until they grew fat. Lippinus’s Tarquinian snails were pampered in other ways, too: the pens had their own sophisticated irrigation systems to keep the snails hydrated. Varro says the following about their design:
The best place [for a pen] is one which the sun does not parch, and where the dew falls. If there is no such natural place — and there usually is not in sunny ground — and you have no place where you can build one in the shade, as at the foot of a cliff or a mountain with a pool or stream at the bottom, you should make an artificially dewy one. This can be done if you will run a pipe and attach to it small teats to squirt out the water in such a way that it will strike a stone and be scattered widely in a mist.
Because of Lippinus’s enterprise, snail pens became a common sight on countryside villas. These little paddocks were kept alongside bees, dormice, and other livestock like hares and chickens.
To the Romans, these were known as cochlearia. This comes from the Latin word for “snail” — cochlea — a word ultimately loaned from Greek. It makes sense, then, why the cochlea of the inner ear bears the name that it does. The word cochlearium also means “spoon” in Latin. Probably because these spoons were designed to scoop snails (and other mollusks) from their shells to eat. And eat snails the Romans did!
We have a decent repertoire of snail recipes in the cookbook Apicius, each preparing the mollusks with different seasonings. Here is one I picked to recreate, in the original Latin and in English:
Cochleas: sale puro et oleo assabis cochleas. lasere, liquamine, pipere, oleo suffundis.
The snails are roasted with pure salt and oil. Pour over laser, liquamen, pepper, and oil.
At first glance, this recipe is different than many modern snail recipes — you’ll notice there’s no garlic, butter, or wine. However, some of the ingredients in the formula from Apicius will work as substitutes.
The oil clearly stands in the place of butter. The ingredient called laser is the juice of the silphium root, an extinct plant that I’ve chosen to swap out with the stinky herb asafoetida (subbing in for garlic). We don’t have a replacement for the wine, really, but the addition of liquamen gives more liquid and more flavor to the snails.
After review, these all make sense in this snail recipe. But as I got a list together for this dish and hunted around for its ingredients, I found myself in a bind.
Snail farming nowadays is strictly regulated in the States. I’m not exactly sure of all the guidelines in place, but the bottom line is that it’s a real challenge to get live snails. This is because the species commonly eaten and fellow members of the genus Helix are originally European, meaning a snail jailbreak could wreak havoc — try to picture a gastropod invasion!
I had to make do with snails in a can (which, believe it or not, is what many high-end restaurants in the U.S. use for their escargot), and I served them in their shells. Without further ado, here’s my take on the recipe from Apicius, for ancient Roman escargot:
Large land snails (mine came in a can of about 16)
2 tbsp of olive oil, plus more for cooking
1 tbsp of liquamen
¼ tsp of asafoetida
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Warm the olive oil in a medium frying pan over low heat. Drain the snails (assuming they are in a can), rinse, and add to the pan. Saute for about five minutes, but be careful as the snails tend to sputter. Mix in the remaining ingredients and stir, then take the pan off the heat. Let the snails cool, then eat them plain or serve them in shells like I did. Enjoy!
Photos of the ingredients; the snails on a plate (in the shells); and a pair of cochlearia from the Hoxne Hoard, now in the British Museum — maybe once used to dislodge snails like these…
Some of the other snail recipes from Apicius call for the little mollusks to be smothered with milk and flour before cooking them like we see above. This preparation was a bit lighter than that lot, something I appreciated.
The combination of flavors was interesting. I think asafoetida added necessary pungent, cheesy flavor in garlic’s absence, and depending on how much you like the aroma, you could even sprinkle in some more than the recipe calls for. And don’t fret about the slightly earthy flavor of the snails. I found they tasted this way even with the sauce, but that should make sense if you consider their lifestyle!
It’s truly a taste of history to try the same mollusks that have been bred for thousands of years. Gourmets around the world may have someone to thank in Lippinus and his early breeding efforts. These snails didn’t come from an irrigated, pint-sized pen, but I suppose a can will do.