Even in the challenging world of French cuisine, few foods inspire as much apprehension as escargot. All that the average adventurous eater knows about it is that snails are involved—but what is it exactly? Are the snails served raw? What part of a meal is it usually served with? What is used to eat it? And where does it come from?

Let’s look at what exactly makes escargot, where it comes from, how it’s prepared, and how to eat it so that the next time you encounter it on a menu you are ready to try this delicacy.

What is Escargot?

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Escargot refers to a delicacy made of small, cooked land snails served with butter. Escargot is most well known for being eaten in France, and “escargot” in fact means "snail" in French, but it has also been consumed in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Morocco, and Algeria for centuries.

Not all snails are safe for human consumption, and some species are too small to be worth gathering and preparing, so most snails that you will encounter in a restaurant are the species known as Helix pomatia. In France, 40-60 tons of Helix pomatia are consumed each year, and most of these come from the hundreds of snail farms across the country.

How Escargot Are Prepared

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To prepare escargot, the snails are first purged of any undesirable contents in their digestive system. The purging process is accomplished either by fasting the snails or by feeding the snails a safe replacement diet.

When the purge is complete, the snails are ready to be cooked. The snails are first killed and removed from the shell. The tail and skin of the snail are inedible, so these must be removed before the snail can be served as escargot. Once cleaned, the snails are placed back in the shells with an herb-infused garlic butter before being put in the oven for about 10 minutes. While in the oven, the butter will melt onto the snail as it cooks, making the escargot ready to be served.

How Escargot are Served

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Escargot are traditionally served in a special plate with shallow indentations that the shell of the snail fits inside. These plates usually have either six or 12 indentations. To eat escargot directly from the shell, the most important tool to have available is a pair of snail tongs. The snail tongs allow you to position and grip the shell so you can get the meat out of it.

To get the meat out of the snail, you will either need snail tongs or a simple toothpick. Snail tongs are the more traditional tool and look like a long two-pronged fork. However, novice escargot eaters can find the tongs awkward, and toothpicks are a much more straightforward method of extracting the meat from the shell. In fact, it is not uncommon to find a set of toothpicks available at high-end restaurants, and there is no shame in using this method to eat this unique food.

Where to Eat Escargot

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If you want to try exceptional escargot and will be traveling through Europe, you can’t do much better than finding a restaurant serving the delicacy in Paris. You can find chefs who are using recipes that date back for centuries with flavors you won’t encounter anywhere else. The Burgundy region is home to many of the snail farms that provide the product for those same restaurants, and in the region Dijon, you can sample excellent escargot alongside some of the finest wines in the world.

You may not have to travel as far as you might think to try escargot, however. Escargot is a $300 million industry in North America, and May 24 is National Escargot Day in the United States. With a little searching, you may be able to find some place much closer to home to sample this unique dish.