Caracóis (Snails)

How to eat caracóis, or snails, in Portugal. Your guide to the popular summertime treat for late afternoons in the Portuguese south.

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caracóis in Portugal
The small land snails eaten throughout the Mediterranean, known as caracóis in Portugal, are a great introduction into the flavors and culture of southern Portugal. 
Enjoyed primarily in Lisbon, the Alentejo, and the Algarve – less so in the north, but you can still find them in Porto – the Portuguese eat caracóis during the summer when they are harvested.  After a long day at work or a lazy day at the beach, it’s a popular Portuguese petisco (similar to Spanish tapas, though there are some important differences between the two) to snack on with a frosty beer.  I prefer mine with a crisp vinho verde, though. (I talk more about Portuguese vinho verde wine here.). But the drink, or the occasion, doesn’t really matter; it’s the convívio, the camaraderie of relaxing with a group of friends and family as the sun dips into the horizon, that counts. 
close up of caracois snails in portugal.png
Caracóis (Snails)
Some bloggers describe caracóis as a delicacy, but they’re not really a luxury product like you might think of French escargotCaracóis are commonly served in a tasca (a local tavern) or a seaside café displaying a hand-written “há caracóis” sign at the door.  (Literal translation: there are snails.) By comparison, Portuguese percebes, or gooseneck barnacles, are much more expensive and truly deserve to be called a delicacy.  (I write about percebes here.)  Caracóis haven’t really been the province of fine dining establishments in Portugal, however, the famed Portuguese chef José Avillez has incorporated caracóis into higher end dishes.  The spirit of the original, though, is simplicity. 
The Portuguese eat about four million kilos of caracóis per year, most of it imported from northern Africa, especially Morocco.  However, despite their ubiquity, caracóis are not as universally appreciated in Portugal as other foods.  A Portuguese news article observes, completely on point, that “everyone has one friend that hates them but also one that loves them.”  It’s a divisive dish.
What’s less contentious are the health benefits:  caracóis are rich in protein and minerals while still being low in fatArcheological evidence suggests that humans have been eating snails for thousands of years throughout the Mediterranean.  They were a good diet supplement if you were having a bad mammoth hunting day.
snail shells
The patterns in the shells of the caracóis are all slightly different from each other.
In Portugal, caracóis are usually served in a chicken-based broth with oregano and bay leaves (i.e., laurel), and sometimes spicy piri-piri oil, but you usually have to ask for that separately.  Different from French escargot, caracóis are smaller and don’t require any special tools to open them.  They are also not swimming in garlic and butter so you can actually taste them.  The consistency is similar to a soft clam or a mushroom, chewy but quite delicate, and the herbal broth brings out the lightly heady flavor.  (Admission: I am not above ordering some gambas al ajillo, Spanish-style shrimp served in garlic butter, and dipping my caracóis in the butter sauce.  I hope they don’t revoke my Portuguese citizenship for this.) Caracóis are usually served with torradinhas, small slices of toast with butter, to sop up the broth, but I have to confess, I much prefer dipping bread into the broth from amêijoas à bulhão pato, or clams in a garlicky broth. That’s where it’s at.
To eat them, your server will give you toothpicks and all you need to do is poke the snail with a toothpick and gently slide it out.  Start with a meia dose, a half portion, which will only set you back about 6 or 7 euros and it’s still a fairly large amount. 
how to eat caracóis
Source: my plate
Caracóis are way easier to eat than escargot.  Granted, I’ve never flung an escargot shell across the room a la Pretty Woman, but I have definitely burnt my hand and spilled buttered herbs all over more times than I care to admit to the French.  To date, I remain uninjured, and unembarrassed, by caracóis.
The modern preparation of caracóis is not for the faint of heart.  The snails are left to fast to remove toxins.  After being cleaned, they are soaked in cold water for about 15 minutes so that the snails emerge from their shells before the heat is turned on.  If you like your food not to look like a part of the animal kingdom, caracóis are not for you. 
Is that caracol looking at me?
caracol in my hand
Not if I face it the other way

The Verdict

I tried so you don’t have to, but I hope you do! 
To eat caracóis in Portugal is a summer ritual in the south.  Caracóis are light, satisfying, and easy to eat, but even if you don’t want to give them a go, find a place where caracóis are served.  Then, sit back and soak up a little slice of Portugal.
[Update: Shout out to the restaurant O Salgadinho in Quarteira, where I last ate some delicious caracóis.  They do not have a multibanco, the card reader to accept debit/credit cards, and though this is clearly indicated at the door, in my enthusiasm for caracóis, I didn’t see the sign.  The owner trusted me to pay 23 euros of my 28-euro bill in cash, walk back to my hotel to get my wallet, and come back to pay the rest.  Obrigadíssima!]
O Salgadinho in Quarteira
Hanging on the front door at O Salgadinho. I saw this but not the “não temos multibanco” sign right next to it. Eye roll.
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