PARIS -- This holiday season, pity the lowly snail.
Since primordial times, they've crawled through slime. Before Christ's birth, Roman generals warred over them. The Swiss have smuggled them for centuries. English and Japanese fanciers venture to France to pay them homage. And in all the world, they've only one absolute ruler -- Georges Kossorotoff, the King of Snails.
In France, where every corner restaurant offers take-home portions of the sluggish specialty, only one shrine exists exclusively for snail sales, providing nothing on its carte save the creamy gastropod. Devotees from across Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia pass pilgrimlike along a sunless Paris back street, drawn on by garlic's rich scent.
There they find a red-and-green neon curl stretching above the century-old Maison de l'Escargot, the "House of Snails," where eight people work feverishly year-round cleaning, shelling and stuffing 20 tons of Provenc al Petit Gris and cinnamon-colored Grand Bourgognes from Savoie. All will meet simmered fates in a succulent lime-green butter sauce. It is an exacting alchemy, performed slowly (at a veritable snail's pace) and with care since 1894.
"The King of Snails ... the Napoleon ... l'Emperor d'Escargot," Kossorotoff, 56, says, laughing. "They've called me many things."
The French journal Le Figaro declares Kossorotoff's Maison "the temple of snail lovers," while other publications simply refer to its snails as "the best." Dutch, West German, South African and Swedish fanciers as well have heaped praise on its fare. "The taste for escargot knows no national boundaries," says the King.
Snails themselves "are capricious eaters," he says. "They eat very little," only grape leaves, cabbage, grass, herbs and some poisonous plants to which their systems are immune. Several years ago, Co~te d'Or vineyards ceased spraying insecticides that threatened to end the little gastropods' regional existence. Such is their plight that already only 2 percent survive into adulthood, and in France their numbers are so diminished that meeting the Gallic consumption rate (60 percent of world production) requires the enforced importation of 14,000 additional tons from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Turkey.
About 600 one-acre farms harvest the hermaphrodites throughout France's warm southern climes. After the snails arrive at the Maison de l'Escargot, they're bathed three times, shuttered in dark cooling rooms, starved (since their entire system is eaten in one lusty dollop, they're purged for eight days to remove impurities) and subjected to processes as ancient as the cast-iron equipment used. In the creamery next door, slow-churning blades prepare a well-guarded secret recipe of garlic, shallots, parsley and spice.
"It's an ancient recipe," Kossorotoff says. "It's been made this way for 100 years, and before that, we just don't know."
Winter is particularly hard on snails, which hibernate during the cold months. November to February is the preferred time for their consumption, Kossorotoff says, since impurities are sealed out of the shells with a chalky secretion. Historically, their fate has been a lowly one. Ancient Romans penned them in snail prison, forcing them to dine on wine-soaked flour until they ballooned into creatures so enormous that patrician revelers could devour only three apiece. His present-day Italian customers, Kossorotoff says, buy greater quantities than other nationalities, while "the English arrive at the shop with great thermoses to fill with their favorite Petit Gris."
None of these, however, rival the French. "He who does not eat snails on Christmas Eve," an old French proverb goes, "will never grow rich."