The Viennese people have a long tradition of preparing and consuming snails (Helix pomatia), dating back to the Middle Ages. In fact, they were a much-loved delicacy of the inhabitants of Carnuntum, the capital of the Roman Province of Pannonien, 40 km east of Vienna.
As Franz Maier-Bruck wrote in his book on Austrian cuisine, Vom Essen auf dem Lande, snails were a highly accessible product in ancient Austria and a special snail market operated until the 19th century, where the snails were also called “Viennese oysters”.
The snail market was situated behind the Peterskirche church on Jungferngasse Avenue, in Vienna’s old city. One of the market vendors is depicted in a copper etching dating back to 1775. Also called “poor man's oysters”, the snails were sold in six to eight different price categories, depending on quality and size.
To meet the enormous demand, snail farming was very common in and around Vienna. Many abbeys and aristocratic houses had their own snail gardens, where they were fed with special aromatic herbs to give them a particular flavor. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the demand for meat alternatives grew so high during Lent that snails were transported to the city from the Swabian Alps along the Danube River.
Six snail dishes are included in the Lent section of Katharina Prato’s famous Austrian cookbook Kochbuch der österreichischen und süddeutschen Küche, a classic published in 1858. The widespread consumption of snails during Lent began with the monks, who didn’t consider them to be meat and raised snails at the monasteries and prepared them in many ways.
However, until the early twentieth century, the majority of the snails were wild harvested and sold by street vendors at the market. However, with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the tradition of gathering and consuming snails was also lost.
Today, Helix pomatia is a protected species and their collection has been forbidden since the 1980s. Breeding the snails is allowed.
The traditional Viennese way to prepare snails is to boil them, toss them in garlic butter, dip them in beer batter and fry them in hot pork lard. They are served with a sauce of vinegar, horseradish and onions. Other popular preparations included filling them with butter and anchovies and the historic Viennese specialty – snails sweetened with caramelized sugar. Many other traditional regional recipes exist, mostly originating from the 19th century, the golden age for this gastronomic tradition: snails served on cabbage leaves cooked in wine; snail au gratin with butter and herbs; oven-baked "Esterhazy"; snails served with a sour cream soup, with root vegetables and horseradish or with bread dumplings; the old Viennese dish of snails stewed in sauce (onion, butter, sour cream, parsley, mushrooms and beef stock); or a savory snail tart with wild garlic.
Bringing this ancient Viennese tradition back to life, one producer, Andreas Gugumuck, has transformed a historic 400-year-old farmhouse in the Rothneusiedl quarter, south of Vienna, into a snail farm. The snails are bred in the open air without the use of chemicals, and are fed sunflowers, turnip leaves, rapeseed flowers, carrots and parsnips cultivated by the producer, and a wide range of herbs such as thyme and fennel. The diet is supplemented every two days with a mix or organic flours. Andreas’ goal is to bring back the Viennese snail to the city’s best restaurants and revive its former glory.
Photos — A. Gugumuck