The Viennese people have a long tradition of preparing and consuming escargot (Helix pomatia), going back to the Middle Ages. For the Romans in Carnuntum (Capital of the Roman Province Pannonien, 40 km east of Vienna), these snails were a much-loved delicacy.
As Franz Maier-Bruck writes in his book about eating in the country, escargots were a down-to-earth specialty in Austria of olden times and, until the early 19th century, there even was a special snail market in Vienna. Snail vendors sold these “poor man’s oysters” in six to eight different price categories, depending on quality and size.
The snail market was located behind the Peterskirche church in Jungferngasserl avenue, in Vienna’s Old Town district. A copper engraving from the year 1775 portrays just such a snail vendor. (Source: Der Kaufruf in Wien)
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for “meatless” food grew so great during Lent that snails from the Swabian Alps were even shipped in along the Danube.
Due to the huge demand, snail farming was very common in and around Vienna. Many abbeys and castles had their own snail gardens, where they were fed with special aromatic herbs for flavor. However, before the 20th century, most snails were simply collected from the wild and peddled at the market. The Helix pomatia is now a protected species and their collection has been forbidden since the 1980s.
The traditional Viennese style is to eat them boiled, tossed in garlic butter, dipped in beer batter, and fried in hot pork lard. They are then served in a saucy concoction of vinegar, horseradish, and onions. Variations included filling them with butter and anchovies or – a purely Viennese specialty – escargot sweetened with caramelized sugar.
Katharina Prato’s famous Austrian cookbook, a classic published in the late 19th century, includes six escargot dishes – under the section of dished for Lent, since some indulgent monks seem to have claimed that snails belong to the category of fish!
Reliving the old Viennese traditions, Andreas Gugumuck has transformed a 400-year-old farmhouse, in the southern Viennese district of Rothneusiedl, into a snail farm.
The appropriate breeding system for snails is free-range and uses no chemicals. The snails thrive on cultivated sunflowers, beet leaves, canola flower, and a variety of herbs including thyme and fennel, to name just a few. Every two days they are also fed with an organic meal mix.
Image: Philipp Horak