If you think gathering sturgeon caviar is hard, consider this: scientists say that when snails make love, it can take anywhere from seven hours to a few years to complete the act, after which the snails lay only about 100 eggs in the dirt.
That's a lot of love that goes into those eggs, and for a few enterprising, daring chefs, those eggs are an earthy, woodsy garnish for blinis, salads, or soups. For Chef Matthew Dolan of San Francisco's Twenty-Five Lusk, the tiny white pearls have become an obsession that he took back with him from Finland.
"I heard about them in Helsinki, where there's a very deep fish egg culture, but I didn't try them," Dolan says. At least initially, he was understandably turned off by the idea of eating snail eggs. But thanks to a stubborn purveyor who kept foisting tins of the unusual ovaries on him, Dolan relented. "I had the idea that it would be the slimiest, nastiest thing out there," he says. "But I was wrong. It tasted like the forest floor. The flavors were more like aromas. It was like a pine forest on a warm summer day."
His initial distaste has quickly molted into obsession, and a need to find the perfect flavor combination for the pearly white caviar, which resemble cooked Israeli couscous but have a firmer texture. "After I tasted the caviar, I couldn't stop talking about it. I ended up eating half the tin. My wife was like, 'if I hear about escargot caviar one more time…'"
Dolan might be abundant in his praise, but escargot caviar actually has an understated elegance. It's almost like a flavor Rorschach test: the caviar tastes different to everybody. For some, the eggs bring out hints of pine, mushroom, and rosemary. For Dolan's sommelier, they tasted a bit like grape leaves ("maybe the snails were snacking on them that day? I dunno," he says). Some, like Kelly Stern, owner of Beverly Hills Caviar, say they taste like non-spicy onions. One thing has been almost universal, though: diners at Twenty-Five Lusk have almost all taken to snail caviar with wide-eyed pleasure. "They all go in expecting one thing, something very assertive, and then they're amazed that it's so mild and pleasant," Dolan says. "It's like a surprise and a relief at the same time."
Snail caviar is a rare product in Europe, and rarer still in the United States—mostly because for years the eggs were thought bland and tasteless. But several years ago a former French chef-turned-snail-harvester decided to change up the cultivation process, which has now led to a tiny but burgeoning snail caviar industry and a growing appetite for the eggs.
Many credit the growing popularity to Dominique Pierru, who in 2004 claims he and his wife "wanted to have a more stable, sedentary profession and snail breeding was the perfect answer." Pierru claims to have removed the pasteurization process, which had previously dulled the caviar's earthy flavors, instead simply quick-blanching the eggs in a hot bouillon and then curing them in sea salt, starch, citric acid, and rosemary.
Because of the labor involved—each snail lays only 100 eggs a year—a 30-gram tin of snail caviar can run upwards of $100, more than most domestic sturgeon roe (but not as much as the best Osetra caviar, which still reigns supreme).
Some chefs have run across the caviar by accident, and may start including the item in dishes. Former Chez TJ Chef Joey Elantario says he ran across dollops of snail caviar in the Palo Alto, California, restaurant's garden, but harvesting enough of the eggs for a dish would be near-impossible. "They were great, though. We [the kitchen staff] snacked on them," he says.
One mistake some chefs might make is treating snail caviar like its fishy cousin. "We see it as a very fine way to serve something that tastes faintly like vegetables," says Stern, whose company has sold snail eggs for five years and is now offering tins of it at new caviar vending machines. "You have to eat something else to understand its flavor. On its own it's not impressive, but in contrast it shows off its flavor."
Even the time-tested caviar combo of blinis, crème fraîche, and Champagne becomes tricky with snail eggs, which are far less assertive and taste much earthier than sturgeon. "You need to get away from blini and crème fraîche," Dolan says.
StarChefs.com tasted Dolan's second attempt at flavor pairing snail caviar, an ahi tuna appetizer with vanilla powder and avocado mousse. The caviar gave a nice balance to the fish and served almost as a truffle addition—gilding the lily with a bit of luxury beyond the reach of most mortals.
Thankfully, Dolan is not quite a mere mortal. And like some obsessed Sisyphus, he plans to rework and rework and rework the inclusion of escargot caviar until he finds a flavor combination that knocks it decidedly out of the park. He's currently spitballing one plan to match the eggs with mushroom oil powder, hoping to cash in on the natural forest floor symmetry. "The dish is lovely," Dolan says, "but the next iteration is looking like a hedgehog mushroom crème brûlée [with] crystalline rosemary. Going to test run it this week."