On a visit to Vienna, I was supposed to eat a bunch of snails for lunch, so I made sure to fill up at breakfast. Given that I’m not a squeamish eater, this fact makes the point pretty clearly: It can be hard to resuscitate a dying culinary tradition with a bit of an ick factor. But in Vienna, one man is single-handedly trying to encourage the consumption of snails – everything from escargot to snail liver, snail “caviar,” and even snail slime – in the hope of reviving a centuries-old tradition.
Seven years ago, Andreas Gugumuck started breeding snails on his family’s 400-year-old farm on the outskirts of Vienna. Gugumuck is energetic and handsome, and in his soft brown leather jacket and perfectly tied striped scarf he looked more like the IT manager he used to be than a snail breeder. He greeted me, squinting against the late afternoon sun, then led me across a rural road to a large garden. From a distance, I could make out grapes, figs, and peppers. But it wasn’t until I got closer that my eyes began to focus: There were thousands of snails, hundreds of which were eagerly gobbling up a pile of carrots.
If the image you’re presently fixed on involves an elegant bistro in Paris and a handcrafted bowl of tiny, charmingly petite coils that act as the ideal vehicle for the heaps of butter and garlic sucked up by fresh chunks of chewy baguette, perhaps accompanied by a glass of crisp white Burgundy, then you’re on the wrong track. Viennese snails are nothing like their French counterparts. The Austrian variety can more accurately be described as the workhorses of the Gastropoda family. At about two inches long, they are a serious mouthful and a truly miserable brownish-grey color.
In other words, I wasn’t exactly overcome with the urge to pop one in my mouth. Gugumuck anticipated that his compatriots might have similar reservations, so in 2010 he launched a charm offensive: the annual Schnecken Festival (Vienna Escargot Festival, this year, September 26-October 4), intended to highlight the significance of the snail to Austrian food culture. While long associated with fine French dining, snails are also traditional fare in Austria – typically boiled in sugar, baked in butter, or fried with bacon and sauerkraut. Snails were popular in Vienna until the beginning of the 20th century – particularly during meatless Lent – when there was even a small snail market behind St. Peter’s Church.
But the culinary allure of snails has faded, so Gugumuck now entices chefs to create a culinary homage to snails, all of which are supplied by his farm. Gugumuck has also taken to handing out recipe cards to locals puzzled by how to integrate snail-related products into their cooking. There is, for example, a recipe for White Omelette with Viennese Liver de Escargot and Roasted Sage Leaves. In addition to the whole snail, Gugumuck offers related delicacies: liver and caviar. The livers are tiny and adorably coiled, just like the snail’s shell. Gugumuck describes the caviar, which are small white pearls, as “fruity and a little herbal.” He also offers tours of his snail farm, which now includes a gift shop and small restaurant.
After meeting with Gugumuck, I made my way over to Böhle, a “delicacies shop” and very small restaurant for a snail tasting session. It was just noon, but there were already a couple of locals nursing beers. I pulled a stool up to the bar and introduced myself to the proprietor, Mr. Erwin Jung. He immediately and without consultation poured me a glass of Sturm, a dark pink and fruity fermented beverage available for only one month every autumn.
Jung is chatty and convivial, and he quickly got to work in his small bar kitchen. He started to heat up some soup and then reached into the freezer for a big bag of snails. Jung shook the bag until a good dozen snails fell into the soup, explaining that the snails are taken out of their shells and then boiled for four hours to make them tender. I started eyeing my neighbor’s risotto enviously. After reaching a low boil, Jung tipped the saucepan into a bowl and then placed the steaming spicy tomato-based soup on the bar in front of me.
It took a few moments until I realized I was stalling. I ate the croutons floating on top. I counted the snails: nine. Finally, I put the first one in my mouth. It was squishy and a bit rubbery with no distinct personality. I tried to swallow the next one whole, which I now realize could have killed me. All the while, Jung hovered and smiled, occasionally tending to other customers. I worked my way through the bowl, pacing myself and drinking a lot of Sturm. Jung looked over, pleased. “I see you like the snails,” he said. He picked up the pot and spooned a few more into my bowl. I tried to hide one under a crouton. Then I realized that the reward for choking down snails was more snails. I put my spoon down.
I have nothing against snails personally, but these particular snails are a lot of swallow. I’ve tried crickets and ant eggs, century eggs, and even dog meat. But it can be hard to develop a taste for new things, and children aren’t the only ones who push unfamiliar items to the side of their plates. When Jung checked in with me once again, I realized that I was overusing the word “interesting.” The next dish consisted of sautéed snails with mango, and this time there was nowhere for the snails to hide. I did my best, struggling mostly with the texture, finished the dregs of my Sturm, and said my goodbyes.
Vienna’s response to Gugumuck’s snail-revival-as-national-pride angle has been lukewarm, so he’s now looking to export markets, particularly New York City. After all, snails aren’t just a proud part of Viennese history; they’re also a lean source of protein. “Our diets are compromising our health,” Gugumuck told me, “but snails are part of the answer.”
About Sarah Treleaven
Sarah Treleaven is a writer who mostly lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the National Post, Globe & Mail and Toronto Star newspapers, and Harper’s, the Walrus, Flare, Chatelaine, enRoute, ELLE Canada, Canadian Business, FASHION and Quill & Quire magazines. She also hosts and produces travel segments for CBC Radio. She has traveled extensively, driven mostly by her stomach.
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