I'm not generally the squeamish sort. I am game for trying anything put in front of my face. My relish, greed and curiousity are usually strong enough to override any initial repulsion or irrational prejudices that may be lurking beneath the surface. I have eaten locusts, I have eaten crickets - both acrid and repellent, like ash in your mouth. I have eaten a chocolate-covered scorpion - all texture, no flavour. In essence, you can't polish a turd. I have eaten escargot, or snails, many times. And I have enjoyed them! This was the first time I ever cooked escargot myself and, with a resigned sadness, faithful Reader, am quite sure it will also be the last.
The initial problem may have been the decision to buy tinned snails. But they were POSH tinned snails - they were from Fortnum and Mason and everything! Initially I was pleased that I wouldn't have to fiddle about with the shells, but when I opened the tin and saw the murky, grey gunge these pustular blobs were bathing in, I longed to see them bobbing in their little shells - perhaps then they would be recognisable as things that might once have resembled beings from planet Earth. I shuddered as I tipped them out into a sieve and watched their bath of discoloured, gelatinous ooze dripping down the plug hole. The side of the tin instructed me to rinse them in warm water. I did as I was told and bits of matter started slipping off them. The matter looked alarmingly similar to white snot.
Snail snot is not a pleasant thing to rinse off. I berated myself for my girlish sensitivities, pulled back my shoulders, jutted out my chin, inhaled deeply, and plunged my hand into the sieve's murky depths. I swished them about to try to remove more of the mollusc mucus. I pulled bits off and rubbed them with my fingers. They felt like grainy rubber in a casing of slime. "Don't look", I said. "Don't look and all will be well". But I had to chop the slimy suckers up to fill my empanadillas. I couldn't brandish a sharp knife and not look where I was striking it. Could I? Maybe I could. Fearing the loss of a finger even more than the snail sieve, I... LOOKED! And I didn't like what I saw.
Cutting through the de-snotted snails, my mind wandered to The Horniman Museum and the shelves of pickled specimens on display. Particularly the pickled brains of tiny creatures. That's basically what snails look like: the pickled brains of tiny creatures. And now they looked like the chopped up pickled brains of tiny creatures. I decanted my grey snail matter into a bowl and topped it with a plate so I could pretend to forget about them while I got on with the rest of the sauce. It's difficult to forget something that has a smell so unlike anything else, so I pushed them to the edge of the worktop and persevered with dilligent and impressive bravery.
What goes with escargot? Garlic. Obviously. Parsley? It would be rude not to. What goes in an empanadilla? Garlic and parsley can be as Spanish as French, especially when you throw some Sherry into the mix. I felt like I might be getting somewhere. How about some onion? Tick. A little chilli hit might be nice? In it went. I simmered the sauce base for longer than strictly necessary in a bid to delay the inevitable. I reached for the bowl at the edge of the worktop and hurled the contents in. I was concerned the mixture might be a little dry on a second cooking in the empanadilla pastry, so I added some chopped fresh tomatoes and more Sherry. After seasoning, I tried to taste it and found that I could not. I called for Richard and, without a moment's hesitation, he plunged a spoon's worth straight into his open pie hole and declared it to be... DELICIOUS!
He encouraged me to do the same and, although I could taste that the flavours were good, my memories of the earlier dissection prevented me from actually enjoying them. It's a shame really. I am not proud of my silliness. And less proud still that I can't seem to shake my silliness off, even now. I tried to eat a snail from Richard's celeriac soup at The Canton Arms last week and the full horror of E night's preparation came flooding back. It is just no use. Alphabet Soup has killed any delight I used to take in eating escargot.
Please don't let any of this put you off. I'm sure that you, dear Reader, would never plunge into such depths of squeamishness over a matter as trifling as brainy snail snot.
I followed Angela Boggiano's recipe in Pie for the pastry. Empanadillas are small, crescent shaped pasties, traditionally served as tapas with drinks.
for the pastry
To make 20 empanadillas
350g/ 14oz Plain flour
1/4 tsp salt
175g/ 7oz butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
100 ml/ 3.5 fl.oz warm water
milk, to glaze
Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Stir in the butter and egg and then gradually work in enough warm water to make a firm dough. Knead for 5 - 10 minutes until the dough is smooth. Cover in clingfilm and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes, while you are preparing the filling.
for the filling
A knob of butter
1 tin of escargot, washed and chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
A large handful of fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp of chilli flakes
100 ml/ 3.5 fl. oz Sherry
4 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and roughly chopped.
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil and butter in a large pan. Add the onion and garlic and fry gently for a few minutes until the onion is soft. Add the escargot and chilli flakes and cook for a further few minutes. Add half the Sherry and reduce down. Add the rest of the Sherry, the tomatoes and parsley and cook until soft. Season to taste and allow the mixture to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200 C (180 C Fan)
Roll the pastry out to a thickness of about 3mm/ 1/8in. Use a saucer as a template to cut out 20 circles. Divide the filling between the dough circles and moisten the edges with a little water. Fold over the dough to enclose the filling and press along the edges to seal. Pinch the sealed edges and twist over to create a rope effect or simply press a fork along each edge. Glaze with a little milk and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm.