It’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!
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