Formerly the preserve of white-clothed restaurants and diners with a flair for French, escargot – garden snails cooked with garlic, butter, herbs and wine – are becoming seriously big business on London menus. As London diners are learning to love the seriously slow food and restaurants are becoming more receptive to serving the shelled specialty, escargot is finally become the eat du jour.
Allan Pickett, the chef behind Piquet, which opened in a former underground car park in Fitzrovia last year, has certainly been making the most of them with his pithivier of Littlebourne snails (£11). Tucked beneath buttery pastry, the snails – plump and plentiful – are combined with garden peas and a sharp Madeira jus for a contemporary spin on a comfort-food classic. Allan says: “I wanted to showcase amazing Kent produce and after doing some research I found out about snail producers H&RH Escargots in Littlebourne. I think people have this preconception that snails are going to be like eating balls of rubber but the fresh ones are so tender.”
Indeed, the snail farm, run by mother and daughter team Helen and Rachel Howard, has seen business boom recently with London restaurateurs flocking to put the molluscs on their menus. Rather than garden snails, the farm specialises in helix aspera maxima and helix aspera muller varieties, which are faster-growing and bigger than their counterparts.
“I would agree that the demand for snails is increasing but it is very much thanks to some really good cooking by discerning chefs like Allan,” says Helen. “There are still a lot of restaurants relying on tinned snails and if customers have never tried fresh snails they would not appreciate the difference.”
But Allan isn’t alone. Another chef certainly not reaching for the tin-opener is Adam Byatt at Trinity in Clapham. The restaurant – which opened the cool and more casual Upstairs last year after a dashing refurb – offers the South London set Dorset snails with oxtail, onions and fried frogs’ legs. Earthy and elegant, Adam buys the don of the dish from its namesake snail farm, a family-run business nestled in the village of Witchampton.
Back in Fitzrovia, popular wine bar The Remedy has recently added the classic Burgundian dish of snails à la bourguignonne and smoked ventrêche (pork belly) on toast (£8) to its small plates menu. Accompanied by smoked cured pig’s belly, a slice is sheer perfection when paired with a natural wine from the same region, of which there is plenty behind the bar. Raymond Blanc, the monsieur behind the menu at the Brasserie Blanc group of authentic French restaurants, says of his similar dish: “Snails bourguignonne is a quintessentially French dish that I always have on the menu at BB. I love the smell of them – it fills the whole kitchen with garlic!”
Kim Woodward, head chef at the Savoy Grill off the Strand, is also having a crack with baked Hereford snails cooked with sweet garlic, red wine and brioche crumbs (£9.50).
And over at Le Restaurant du PAUL at Tower 42 in the City, snails come as a main with pasta, garlic and Pernod anise sauce in the pâtes aux escargots (£11.95).
Finally, Café Rouge – the French chain revitalised with the recent opening of a new flagship in St. Paul’s – pays homage to the humble mollusc on its menu with a classic escargot slathered with garlic butter.
Go on: shell out.