"What are "petits-gris de Namur"? I asked the waitress at Le Trois Chicons in the Marolles district of Brussels
"Escargots, madame" she replied
All the years I'd lived in Belgium I'd never seen this offered as an appetiser. Normal sized escargots - in or out of their shells - I've been eating since I was a schoolgirl; les crevettes grises, those tiny pinky brown morsels of shrimpy deliciousness often served in croquettes, I'd first consumed even earlier in my childhood on the edge of the North Sea, sold fresh the off shrimping boats in "pokes" but the tiny petits-gris, a delicacy of Namur in Wallonia, I'd never come across let alone sampled. "I'll try those" I said.
They were served in a puff pastry shell with a sauce of white wine, finely diced mushrooms, garlic and herbs; tiny, tender and delicate they were much superior to the escargots I'd eaten the previous Friday in Paris. The farm "Vieux Tilleul" in Bierwart near Namur has been raising these snails in a sustainable manner since 1987 and appropriately enough they are part of the locavore or Slow Food movement. I discovered many recipes for the speciality but for me the simpler the better to allow the snails to shine.
Petis-Gris de Namur
First procure your snails (6 per person), rinse them and warm very gently - you don't want to boil them or dry them out - above all avoid making them explode! Set them aside. Heat four individual puff pastry shells. Finely dice a mirepoix of two carrots, one shallot and the white part of a leek, sweat this in an ounce of butter until the vegetables are tender but still have a little bite. Add salt and pepper and 7 fl oz dry white wine, then carefully add the reheated snails and another ounce or so of butter to make a homogenous sauce. Divide between the pastry cases and dust with finely chopped parsley or, for an extra crispy topping, garnish with fried parsley. I'm going to sprinkle a tiny pinch of the Sel Fumé HALEN MON I bought on the market at Watermael-Boitsfort over mine.