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Suck it Up and do What the Portuguese do, Eat Caracois!

snailsIt’s summertime in Portugal, and as the tourists flood the downtown, the Portuguese retreat to their local restaurants and bars to enjoy the gastronomic tradition of the season: snails! Yes, that’s right, Caracois are to the Portuguese as hot dogs and hamburgers are to the Americans this season, and they’re both cheap eats. From what most Americans know about snails in general, we know from the French, and still don’t quite understand why they would regard such things as a delicacy! Well, it may not be a delicacy here, but they’re definitely something the Portuguese like to eat a lot of, having anxiously awaited the moment in mid-June when they see the signs go up outside the restaurants saying “¡Há Caracóis!”(there are Caracois).

But I never thought I’d see people get so excited over something my culture won’t even get near. When I walk into a local bar or cafe here, between the hours of 5 and 7pm, the whole place is packed with everyone chowing down on heaping plates of Caracois. It may look like an enormous amount but these Portuguese snails are much smaller than their known French cousins. So there’s a lot of lip-smacking and finger-licking, as the Caracois are cooked in a very flavorful broth and its custom to just suck those little guys right out of their shells! They do give you toothpicks if you’re not courageous enough, so you can pull them out instead (like I did).

The tradition of eating Caracois in the summer originated in the southerly Portuguese region of Alentejo, with influence from the Andalucia region in southern Spain. Both of these regions get extremely hot in the summer but also have the humidity that promotes snail growth, and these snails are harvested throughout the season until their supplies dry out. The cooking broth is also very traditional with the predominant flavoring ingredient being oregano, which is a must (your hands stink of it after eating them!). The other ingredients include laurel, thyme, garlic, onion, olive oil, salt and pepper and a little spice called piri-piri, which is the Portuguese equivalent to chili pepper. Only minor additions are made to this recipe, such as student of mine whose mother adds diced tomato and presunto which sounds yummy! I found the leftover broth to be excellent for mopping up with a piece of crusty bread that’s served with them. When you cook the Caracois, they have to be alive of course, just like shellfish, and rinsed several times to make sure you’ve got all of their glue out.

The typical drink then with Caracois? Well, the top choice here is a cold glass of Portuguese beer, (Sagres or Superbock) but after trying both, I prefer the white wine I had with them, which I found to compliment the flavors of the broth much better than the beer. Try any basic white from Alentejo that happens to pair well with its traditional food counterpart. I had the restaurant’s house white, Convento Da Vila, from Cooperativa da Borba, made from the amusingly named grapes Roupeiro and Rabo de Ovelha, (literally translated to Wardrobe and Sheep’s Tail) which have refreshingly ripe, tropical fruit flavors and are also available in red varieties.

So how did my Puritan American background fare to eating Caracois? Let’s just say, if you can get over the squeamishness of knowing what you’re eating then they are quite delicious. The texture is exactly like cooked mushrooms, which I love, so I stuck with that image during my meal. And you know what, I ended up having another plate of Caracois with friends a week later without cringing; now thats blending in with the locals!

If you are interested in cooking up some caracois for yourself, here is a recipe provided for us by the Algarve Buzz!

To being adventurous,

Andrea Smith

* For The Truly Adventurous: We ended up trying the big brother of Caracois, called Caracoletas, which are A LOT larger and come roasted in the shell with lemon, garlic-butter dipping sauce or mustard, which is a traditional pairing. I don’t care for these and most Portuguese don’t even like them since they can be a very chewy mouthful. However, if prepared right, there are some die-hard fans out here, (including my crazy boyfriend, but at least they didn’t go to waste!). We should all try everything at least once, so if you’re bold and end up liking them, let me know!*

Flickr Photo attributed to zona41

  • Alfred

    Muy interesant el artículo. Curiosamente en el pueblo donde vino, Castellolí en Barcelona, tras la filoxera los payeses hicieron un esfuerzo por recuperar su actividad y se plantaron nuevas variedades en aquel momento , pruebas en la lucha por la supervivencia. Ente las variedades introducidas estava la Rabo de Ovelha portuguesa , que aquí se conoce como "Cua de moltó" -mismo significado que en portugués. Es un racimo enorme , de gran presencia. Dado que las viñas -fuera de toda D.O. ,plantadas con sumoll principalmente y otras variedades , están en peligro de ser abandonadas , hace unos meses por gusto individual solicitamos unos esquejes de "Cua de moltó" que hemos injertado en unas cepas de nuestra pripiedad -un acto romántico sin fines comerciales- Espero que cuando llegue la cosecha os pueda hacer probar esta variedad portuguesa transplantada a Catalunya. Saludos. Alfred

  • Inma Martinez

    In Jaén, Andalucia, the same frenzy over the long-awaited "Caracoles" takes place in June. The "Caracoles" are served in a small glass, the same one used for the typical individual "caña", which is the size of a small tumbler where Lager is poured onto. The "caracoles" come in a hot broth that is drunk when all "Caracoles" have been consumed. It is the cherry on the cake, as the locals put it. Some "Caracoles" are of such miniscule dimensions, that they are no bigger than a fingernail, so the sucking, picking and pulling with the toothpick becomes an entertaining battle. It reminds me of the real China and Hong Kong where the locals slurp their food as a sign of pleasure and delight.

  • ogizi81

    thanks!