As the sun began setting on a scorching beach day in Kissamos, Crete, I threw my hungry, freshly lobster-colored self in a cab heading toward the nearby town of Chania. I assumed the edible solution to the more pressing problem would be one of the region’s decadent spreads straight out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, broken plates and all. But instead, I turned to one of the more average-human-stomach-sized delicacies of Crete: snails.
It’s true that to the majority of the world, French cuisine and its polarizing escargot has, for centuries, dominated the snail food game with an Iron Shell. But Greeks, particularly Cretans—a population somehow largely removed from the global culinary eye—have been serving up several of their own variations on SpongeBob’s dear pet for millennia.
Dating back to 2 AD or earlier, the Greek medical author Galen notes of the gardener’s nemesis: “All the Greeks eat snails every day.” Backing up Galen and Greece’s historical claim to the edible snail are regional archaeologists who have found their shells in their history-pertinent dumpster dives, signaling of the mollusk’s historical status as a staple in the Greco diet.
But while Galen referred to “all the Greeks,” Chrissy, the manager at the Samaria Hotel where I would be testing my protein-species boundaries, explained that snails—or kohli, as they are referred to locally—were consumed almost entirely by Cretan peasants until recent decades.
“Kohli, which are high in protein and easy to prepare, are largely found in the wild in the mountains,” she explained at the reception counter while the chefs finished the final touches of a grilled cheese room-service order. “Since many people lived in those regions, they would simply go out and hunt them.”
After a successful hunt, many families would boil the snails and serve them atop whatever base was available—mostly nutritional filler like a heap of vegetables or a pot of rice. The end goal was to keep everyone fed and full, and with money being an issue, the fact that your meal might have once exuded slime wasn’t up for debate.
And like almost everything in haute and trendy cuisine (consider the lobster, indeed), kohli has transcended its status as a frugality measure to a delicacy, displayed on menus alongside other wallet-choking dishes. Surprisingly, as Chrissy explained to me, it’s not the more flavorful recipes that have made this entrée so expensive. Rather, it’s the labor behind the hunt, one of the features that actually made these filling little mollusks so convenient for the peasants.
Chrissy admitted that she doesn’t participate in these hunts. Fortunately, Adonis, the taxi driver who got me to my mollusk feast, managed to regale tales of his family engaging in the time-honored kohli-quest.
“We go in March, always after a rainfall,” Adonis said when describing successful kohli hunt procedures. “We go out at night, with a lamp, and then ‘THROOP!’ [makes a snagging gesture with his hand]—the kohli. Then we keep them for a month, feeding them macaroni or pasta and using water to clean them out.”
For most Cretans, climate is the deciding factor for when’s the best time to gather kohli. In March, when the rainy season begins, snails cover the mountainside, leaving their goopy trails everywhere thanks to the water that provides them hydration and, indirectly, vegetal nourishment.
During the summer season, the lack of rain leaves the little guys weak, flaccid, and tasteless—essentially, edible latex. So, until the recent invention of farms that mimic environmental conditions for churning these suckers out year-round, kohli was actually a seasonal dish.
After distracting Chrissy from the hotel residents calling her in dire needs of their spare towels, I found myself in the hotel kitchen with a bucket of snail shells. There, chef Stelios and his fellow chef (coincidentally also named Stelios) had prepped the spread for cooking the traditional and local specialty: kohli bourbouristi. While no direct Greek translation exists for this tongue twister, the name has an array of competing etymological histories, from it being the sound of the snails “popping” in the frying pan to, according to Stelios, a derivation of the local term bourbour, meaning “to lie down.” Whatever the case, the hefty helpings of wild-caught kohli were dead and permanently bourbour-ing when I arrived.
Like escargot, an important aspect of the cooking is simply cleaning the meal. When purging kohli though, Cretans almost always keep the snails lodged firmly in their shells. Chrissy claims her family does this by going hardcore (i.e., rather sadistic) and frying the poor fellas alive in the pan, but Stelios opts for an argumentatively more “humane” way of cooking.
“We kill the snails while cleaning them,” Stelios explains. “The humidity from the water’s temperature changes in the pot from cool to warm, and tricks them to coming out slightly, making them easy to pick out of the shell. Then we boil them dead.”
After cleaning the finger-food a second time, the rest is pretty straightforward for anyone with a kitchen. After tossing the kohli in flour and coating the pan with the Greek’s ever-present liquid gold—olive oil—as well as herbs and local nosebleed-inducing vinegar (not exaggerating here), I had to myself the perfect bar snack five minutes later. They were not all too visually distinguishable from the American laymen’s favorite of fried clams, and hell, they practically taste the same.
Compared to its fellow mollusk family members, I’ll admit the kohli’s meat was a bit more rubbery, jiggling euphemistically as I struggled with plying the goop-coated flesh from its skin-scorching shell. The vinegar used in kohli bourbouristi adds an addictive, acidic kick that, to me, always seemed to be lacking in the dish’s French counterpart. Pretty soon, I found myself already halfway through the bowl.
Considering my newly developed predilection as an American toward this unconventional snack, I was taken aback by the local feeling towards the dish: Chrissy disclosed that even most Greek don’t know about the Kohli Bourbouristi, and Stelios conceded, with a frown, that several in our generation—even those bastardly food-seekers who claim to eat everything in the name of Instagram—won’t eat it. Honestly though, if I didn’t know these were snails, I would have wondered how these hadn’t already made their way to at least the American-Greek bar scene as an alternative to the common late night snacks like gyros or souvlaki.
Still, with the growing desire for a return to authenticity, Cretan food is expanding beyond the confines of its homeland—and possibly even beyond Greece itself. Let’s just hope it gets here faster than at a snail’s pace.
“Most people know ‘Greek food,’” Stelios chided facetiously to me as I continued de-shelling the evening’s fried rubbery victims. “But this, kohli bourbouristi, is authentic Greek food!”
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