Although the average person thinks a snail is a snail, there are approximately 60,000 species of snails spread over the earth. Many of these are marine species, such as periwinkle or conch; still others live in freshwater. Terrestrial snails, or those that live on land, are those used for what is traditionally known as escargot, simply the French word for snail.
Although there are many species of snails that can be eaten, we will only outline four main species that are regularly consumed or farmed today:
This the most commonly farmed snail throughout Europe today. Its common name is the common brown garden snail. They’ve been reclassified from Helix to Cornu, though it is still widely known as a Helix (You choose which you prefer! Just know that they are the same
species). Cornu aspersum is native to the Mediterranean and spread to western Europe, but whether deliberately or accidentally, humans have carried it to temperate and subtropical areas worldwide. Due to this adaptability and its mild flavor, this snail is relished as a food item in many areas, but it is also widely regarded as a pest in gardens and in agriculture, especially in regions where it has been introduced accidentally and where snails are not usually considered to be a menu item.
The adult bears a hard, thin calcareous shell 25–40 mm in diameter and 25–35 mm high, with four or five whorls. The shell is variable in color and shade but generally is dark brown, brownish golden, or chestnut with yellow stripes, flecks, or streaks (characteristically interrupted brown colour bands). The body can range from beige to a dark gray, thus the nickname “petit gris” or little gray.
Commonly called by a variety of names including the Roman snail, the Burgundy snail or the vineyard snail. Although this species is highly
prized as a food it is difficult to cultivate and rarely farmed commercially. In fact, it is so rare in France that hunting licenses are required when this species is “in season.”
The width of the adult shell, usually a creamy beige to brown, is 30–50 mm. The height of the shell is 30–45 mm. In Europe they tend toward inhabiting fields, vineyards, woodlands or areas with calcareous soil and high humidity and lower temperatures. In the U.S., they are considered an invasive species, even though in actuality they have little effect on ornamental or commercial crops. They have been reported in small populations in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and other spots in the Northeast U.S.
Other snail species of note
Known as the milk snail (hence the lactea in it’s Latin binomial) or the Spanish snail, the lactea is not grown extensively but is consumed throughout Spain, Portugal, Greece and other Mediterranean countries and primarily foraged from the wild.
Native to Europe and parts of North Africa, it has been introduced to the U.S., including Arizona and Florida, and to Bermuda, Cuba, southeastern Australia and is considered an invasive agricultural pest. Usually a bit smaller than C. aspersum, it also has a domed shell but much flatter than either the H. pomatia or C. aspersum.
Its shell pattern varies greatly but generally is a beige color with darker brown striping and some variegation.
If you want to ensure a visit from federal USDA officials to your front door, then this is the snail for you. But seriously, the Achatinadae family of species, affectionately known as the giant African land snails (or GALS for those in the know), are strictly verboten in the U.S. by our friends at USDA. GALS, originating in equatorial east and west Africa, can have shells that measure
10-12 centimeters (4-5 inches) and the body can stretch to 22.8-30.5 centimeters (9-12 inches)!
In Africa, there have been concentrated efforts to promote farming using these GALS species. Obviously their size could allow for an easy and large source of protein.
GALS are notorious for having infested many islands and other tropical and subtropical regions, eating their way through agricultural crops, ornamental plantings and even the paint and stucco off houses.
Past incursions in to the U.S., specifically Florida which has a hospitable climate for these critters, have caused extermination campaigns costing in the millions of dollars before the snails took hold. Because of this, GALS are completely forbidden here. So don’t even go there.