ESCARGOTS have been one of the great gastronomic icons -- and to most Americans, proof of Europeans' culinary insanity -- dating back to at least the first century B.C., when the Romans figured out how to fatten them up like mini-foie gras. According to Pliny, one Fluvius Lupinus prospered thanks to the success of his commercial snail farm, where he fed the morsels on meal and boiled wine. The Romans carried their snail habit to Burgundy, still one of the strongholds of escargot cuisine, where those snails that fed on grapevines became the most prized of all -- maybe because it meant they could skip the boiled wine part. (Unfortunately for the vinophiles amongst us, however, the snails we mostly know, the garden variety, are more like the ones in the south of France than the Burgundians.) Snails are particularly popular in France, of course, as well as Italy and Belgium and in parts of Spain, but sales are still pretty sluggish in the United States.
The problem is partly translation ("snails?") and partly transportation. Until recently, unless a chef was extravagant, wildly successful, independently wealthy or on television, importing live snails was out of the question; and bottled or frozen snails were unpredictable in quality, to say the least. In fact, a lot of Americans who do eat escargots consider them just an excuse for consuming great quantities of garlic butter, using them as sort of marine bread.
But now, thanks to a Choptank River snail farm, Washingtonians finally have a chance to find out what the real thing tastes like, even without the garlic butter, thank you very much. Eddie Chupek of U.S. Snails in Preston, Md., which is near Easton, is raising fresh snails of the sort called "petite gris" in small, medium and large sizes; feeding them vegetables and grain; purging them with basil; and then just blanching them before deliverying them in less than 24 hours to area restaurants. (Notice -- they're renewable, organically cultivated and locally produced, all of our favorite things. But also note that snails, which "crawl upon the Earth," as the Levitican prohibition goes, are for that reason not kosher.)
Jamie Stachowski of Pesce in Dupont Circle (2016 P St. NW; 202/466-3474), who uses the larger ones in a risotto with fresh morels finished with a little marscarpone cheese, says it's hard to explain just how the fresh snails taste better. "They're plump and not uniform in color, so they look more real than the ones that come all-black and dyed and marinated. It's like a different animal."
At Bis on Capital Hill (in the Hotel George at 15 E St. NW; 202/661-2700), chef Jeffrey Buben uses the smaller ones in two dishes: The smaller, "greener" one (meaning with a more delicate herbal undertone) is an appetizer presentation of snails and artichoke hearts with zucchini, potatoes and tomatoes, snail butter and a little Pernod all served en brioche. The big, roasty-toasting entree is a filet of fish (rockfish, snapper, halibut, etc., according to the height of the catch) bedded down in roasted potatoes and topped with a classic Burgundian-style saute with wild mushrooms, shallot, garlic, fish stock and lots of parsley.
Chef Brian McBride of Melrose in the Park Hyatt Hotel (21st and M streets NW; 202/955-3899) makes an appetizer tarte of these "Maryland state escargots" with fresh morels and mirepoix (tiny dice) of root vegetables in a calves' foot sauce.
Frederic Lange of the Lafayette restaurant in the Hay-Adams Hotel (16th and H streets NW; 202/638-2570) makes a cream soup of the smallest ones with pureed soft-roasted garlic and blanched Italian and curly parsleys, finished with a dose of chardonnay snail butter and garnished with tomato dice.
U.S. Snails has even broken into the prestigious country-inn circuit; Preston snails are showing up on menus at the Inn at Little Washington (540/675-3800) in Washington, Va., the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael's (410/745-2200) and the Milton Inn in Sparks, Md., (410/771-4366), among others.
And here's the best news yet: Chopek will poach them and leave them in the shells for you, so you can grab some right on your way to the beach. Now there's one antidote to the beach-food blahs -- snail mail.
Next week: If you've got a craving for sea cucumber, Lord only knows what you're pregnant with.