Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Facing phobias in Alsace - Snails

First published Canberra Times 8 June 2011
Auberge de la Huhnelmuhle feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually only a few minutes drive from our house. We spot this inviting looking restaurant from the track that leads to the ruins of Ortenbourg and Ramstein Chateaux that tower over the picturesque village of Scherwiller. We make a plan to eat there before our holiday is over. The Auberge is located on the ancient Route du Sel, once a stopover for Roman salt merchants on their way to the Rhine River.

The Auberge is part of an old, double-storey Alsatian farm house located on the banks of a small stream. The sound of rushing water comes from canal diversions running around the farm buildings and provides a clue that this property had a former life as a mill.

We arrive without a booking and join another couple who are seated on the terrace at a table overlooking the stream. The sun is close to setting and a golden, hazy glow settles over the forest, paddocks and vines that surround us. We drink in this gorgeous vista, along with an Alsatian Cremant, embedding it as a mellow memory to take home with us to Australia. The calm beauty of the place only highlights the short time we have left of our holiday in Alsace.

We are greeted warmly by Madame Schmitt, who explains in French and German that she is the owner of the establishment and the surrounding vineyard, Domain Jean-Paul Schmitt. She gives us menus and tells us that the specialty of the house is Carp fritters. We are strangely excited by the unexpected prospect of fish and frites on a Friday night even if it is oversized goldfish.

Two of my food dreads are on the menu tonight and confronting my phobias head on, we order Escargots a l’Alsacienne and Carp Fritters to share. Before this, I had only encountered rubbery, flavourless snails in faux French restaurants and dead carp on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, smelly victims of sport fishing.

More customers arrive and with the sun now setting we decide to linger on the terrace for our aperitif and entree. Our aperitif is a Cremant, the light and refreshing bubbly, brewed in Alsace, followed by a Muscat with snails, and finally a bottle of Schmitt’s Pinot Gris with the main. Madame Schmitt appears at our table to say she is finishing for the evening and her daughter will look after us, she wishes us au revoir and bon appetit. This friendly and personal touch is one that will have us return.

The snails arrive in a bubbling lava mixture of oil, garlic and herb butter, nestled in their special ceramic dish. The inviting smell of garlic beckons us and we dip our forks in to extract these tasty little morsels. These molluscs are like nothing I’ve had before, tender and succulent with a prawn-like texture bathed in rich French butter. Before we realise it, we’re mopping up the remnants of garlicky butter with fresh, crunchy bread.

As the sun sinks lower and the view becomes even more impossibly spectacular, the falling temperature signals our move inside. We are surprised at how full the restaurant is now and we are shown to a cosy table in the corner. The interior is traditionally timber-lined, with hefty exposed beams spanning its width. The large open fire in the corner looks big enough to manage the freezing winters that are dealt out here.

Our Carp fritters arrive on a large shared plate atop a warming tray, reminiscent of Swiss and German fare. The flavour of the Carp, with its three dipping sauces, is unexpectedly un-fishy, surrounded by a light and crunchy beer batter. This meal is essentially gourmet fish and potatoes, but very tasty and beautifully presented.

Our grand finale, a shared Souffle au Grand Marnier, was a perfect rendering of that pillow soft, eggy puffiness balanced by a hint of orange liquor. The meal was topped off with surprisingly good coffee, unusual in our experience here.

The food, as we expected, is traditional Alsatian, well presented and beautifully and sensitively cooked. It’s dipped in a spectacularly beautiful setting and accompanied by confident and personal but non-pretentious service. The other highlight for me was squashing two food phobias in one fell swoop.

The French reportedly consume approximately 40 000 tons of escargot each year, making them the world's largest consumers of snails in the world. Much of this is imported, as the French are currently unable to produce enough domestically to meet the demand. Consumption is particularly high during festive times, as escargot is considered a delicacy.

Snail meat is available in a number of ways, fresh, frozen or tinned. It is more difficult to obtain fresh snails in Australia and they require extensive preparation to be table ready. Frozen and tinned are ready to bake without the requirement for further processing.

If you decide to tackle your phobias and munch on a snail, there are a number of online companies or delicatessens selling escargot in Australia. Don’t be tempted by our shelled friends from the garden as they can contain toxins.

Serves 2

Escargots a l’Alsacienne

80g soft, unsalted butter
2 fillets of anchovies, mashed (optional)
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
half a bunch of parsley, finely chopped
50ml vegetable stock
100ml dry white wine
1 tin of snails, drained, usually contains about 2 dozen per tin
½ tspn pastis (optional)
½ tspn lemon juice
pinch of salt
ground black pepper

Combine the butter, anchovies, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, pastis, salt and pepper and mix well. Flatten the mixture between two sheets of baking paper and chill until hardened.

Preheat the oven to 200C.

Rinse the snails in a couple of changes of fresh water and drain. Combine the vegetable stock, wine and drained snails and simmer for 10 minutes and drain.

If you don’t have a traditional snail dish, arrange half the snails each in two small gratin dishes and top each with half of the chilled butter mixture.

Bake for about 6 minutes in the oven or until snails are warm and the butter is melted and golden on the top.

Recipe adapted from the book, Cuisiner avec la poterie de Soufflenheim, Colmar.