Barbecue lends itself to obsession. If you’re afflicted with an obsessive personality like me and you start to delve into the world of barbecue, you may soon find all your spare time literally going up in smoke. The truth is well known to the legions of barbecue "widows" who have lost their husbands to barbecue contests and smoke fests. This truth became apparent during a 10-day swing through the south of France to study the elusive art of French grilling.
Barbara (my wife) and I had been on the road for about a week, and this being Sunday, it was to be our first night "off" (without any special dining plans). Then I made the fatal mistake of calling French culinary authority Patricia Wells, who told me about grilled snails.
Grilled snails are the specialty of a restaurant called L’Hostal in the hamlet of Castellnou near Perpignan in southwestern France. The problem was that we were in Arles (the Provençal town immortalized by Van Gogh), some 400 miles away.
A call to the restaurant confirmed that yes, they had grilled snails. Yes, I could order them for this evening. No, the restaurant would not be open Monday or Tuesday. Yes, it was too bad we were leaving France on Wednesday. Yes, if we wanted grilled snails, we’d have to eat them that night.
I did some quick calculations. If we left our hotel in 10 minutes and drove a hundred miles an hour, we could be in Castellnou by sundown. I turned to Barbara and said, "I’ve just found a place that serves grilled snails."
"Great," she said. "Let’s go."
"There’s only one problem," I said. "The restaurant is near the Spanish border."
Luckily, when it comes to barbecue, my wife is nearly as obsessive as I am.
True to my calculations, we arrived in Castellnou four hours later, having averaged a hundred miles an hour on the autoroute. The last six miles took us up a steep, winding road to a perfectly restored medieval citadel. We found L’Hostal without much trouble (it being the only restaurant in town). Still vibrating from the drive, we took our seats on a cliffside terrace with a dizzying, dazzling view of the Roussillon Valley.
In the summer, L’Hostal does its grilling in a huge outdoor fireplace. In the winter, the operations are moved to the manorial hearth in the low-ceilinged dining room. The favored fuel here is vine trimmings, branches for delicate fare, like snails, vine stalks and roots for large cuts of meat. When we arrived sure enough, and sure enough, four dozen tiny snails were sizzling away on a circular wire grill over blazing vine trimmings.
With tolls, gas, and a place to stay for the evening, the trip to Castellnou cost $400. Which makes this one of the most expensive dishes of escargots I’ve ever eaten. It was worth the drive-and the money-for I’ve never seen grilled escargot anywhere else.
In one sense, neither you nor I will ever be able to reproduce this recipe at home. We probably can’t get the tiny, succulent escargots known locally as petits gris ("little grays"). We certainly can’t buy them live or feed them on fresh thyme in special cages in our basements. We can’t buy snail grills, although a vegetable grate or round cake rack perched on a couple of bricks will work in a pinch.
Ultimately, we will never be able to duplicate the texture and flavor of L’Hostal’s grilled snails: the former being soft, moist, even a little "drooly" (baveuse in French), the latter being pungent, salty, aromatic, with overtones of thyme and even curry.
But I love a challenge. So, although we may not be able to duplicate the dish, I’ve come up with a recipe for highly delicious grilled snails inspired by L’Hostal’s preparation (see the facing page). As for the grill, well, Barbara is still wondering what happened to our cake rack.
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