Clisson is a small town in Western France containing a population just shy of 6,000 people, a 13th century castle, and not much else. But every year since 2006, this sleeper city also hosts the Hellfest metal festival, increasing the population by about 100,000 metalheads from around the world.
I was there to report on what was happening at the festival, but I didn't expect to stumble upon Shellfest, which was taking place in the nearby town square. I was lured in by an image of devil horns coming out of a snail shell—Snail Satan?—beneath which was a huddle of cute teenage girls selling fresh escargot. It seemed French enough, but at a metal fest, I was expecting to find more pig's blood than a table full of slimy molluscs.
The group of 16-year-olds turned out to be students at the local high school. Their English teacher, Cyril Richard, had come up with the idea of using the festival as an opportunity to show off local food culture to the world, and to get the students acquainted with international visitors. I couldn't help but wonder if Iron Maiden had stopped by to sample the snails in between their set lists.
It was a nice idea, sure—but it was jarring to see snails being sold the way you might see a tray of lemon bars offered at a bake sale across the Atlantic. In my mind, escargots are one of those fancy, old-fashioned relics of French cuisine (not as gross as frogs' legs, but getting there). Eating snails at a metal fest felt like tucking into éclairs at a dogfight, or something.
But I was also open to something a little out of the ordinary at that point. I hadn't had a lot of variety or originality in my diet on the trip by that point. French cooking has a reputation abroad for being sophisticated. Once you're outside of Paris, though, you mainly find a whole lot of variations on meat, cheese and bread. I don't know what vegan or gluten-free people do there, except feel paralyzed with utter desperation and hunger.
As Richard explained, snails are a delicacy in the area. A lot of locals, himself included, forage for them as a hobby. For the festival, however, he'd bought them in bulk from a local farmer. For Richard, the concept was a clever gimmick that would both challenge the fest's many international visitors to try out this sample of Old World cuisine, and introduce his students to life outside of their small-town bubble. (The banner urged participants, "Help us come out of our shell!") Perhaps he figured that, just as a nearby group of metal bros dared each other to jump off the bridge into the Loire River, international rockers would be inspired to take the plunge into this slimy treat.
The funds raised from the sale were to go towards "opening the students to the world" and funding various unspecified projects at the school. The cause seemed a little nebulous, but I liked the originality of the initiative. My resistance was breaking down as the girls urged me to give it a try. And I was happy to have the opportunity to eat something other than a plain baguette.
The escargot was chewy, sort of like a scallop, with a musky flavor that bordered on fishy. As Richard and his students no doubt intended, it was too intriguing to have only one. Obviously, I needed to eat more snails.
After a few more samples, a couple of the girls convinced me to have my picture taken for a "shellfie" that was posted to the Shellfest Instagram account.
I was definitely not the only one. Looking back on Shellfest's Instagram page at the array of dozens of snail-eaters—generally some combination of tattooed, pierced, and intoxicated—has the effect of a loving middle finger aimed squarely at the stuffiness of French haute cuisine. We're here to take your snails to Hell, they say.
God only knows what they would've done with frogs' legs.