Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Chochli (Snails) Boubouristi
Snails are a beloved dish in most of mainland Greece, but are especially valued in the Cretan cuisine, where more than 40 recipes exist to prepare them.
A common dish in Minoan Crete, snails were prized because they grew in abundance in the island’s gardens without having to be cultivated or hunted. In ancient Crete, it was the poor man’s meal; combined with vegetables or grains it made for tasty dishes that included a free source of protein. A recent archaeological find in Santorini was a Minoan vessel full of snails. The modern day Cretan name for snails is “chochli”, a variation on the ancient Greek “kochlea” i.e. snails.
To this day, snails are cooked throughout the year after being gathered in late spring or autumn. They are kept in lose-woven sacks that allow the captive snails to breath. Because the Cretan flora is made of many aromatic herbs and vegetables on which the snails gorge, they are said to gain a wonderful taste.
As I mentioned above there are numerous ways to cook snails; “chochli boubouristi” are the most common preparations and are offered as part of meze to accompany Cretan raki i.e. Cretan grappa, drunk throughout the island as an afternoon or early evening appetizer.
The preparation of Cretan snails is much different from the French escargot. While in the escargot, only the part of the body that includes the foot is stuffed back into the shell, and the shell is topped with herbed butter, the Cretan snail is cooked whole, and then a toothpick or bent fork is used to pry the snail from its shell.
Snails must be carefully cleaned and the membrane covering the shell’s opening removed. Put them into water for a short time, and you will see the snails emerge from their shells. Discard any shell that has no snail emerging out of it. It means that the animal could be dead, and a dead snail exudes an objectionable odor that will ruin the dish. Be careful to keep a cover over the pot with the water; otherwise, you will find snails wandering all over your kitchen walls and cabinets. It happened to us when we were living in our first apartment on West End Avenue.
Start by boiling the snails in highly salted water until you can remove the froth, which in fact is their saliva, with a slotted spoon. Scrape any debris or membrane remains from the shell with a small knife, replace the hot water with cool, and then you are ready to actually cook the snails.
1 lb. large snails, prepared as above
1/4 cup of virgin olive oil for cooking
3 – 4 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp fresh rosemary
˝ tbsp finely chopped cilantro
2 ˝ tbsp salt (sea salt or kosher salt preferred)
Spread a thin layer of the salt in a heavy frying pan.
Preheat the frying pan. Use high heat. Place the snails in a single layer, opening side down, on the salt. After 5 minutes, add the olive oil and cook for another 10 minutes.
Pour vinegar, rosemary and chopped cilantro, remove from heat and they are ready to serve.
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