Last Spring I got frustrated with replacing my herb seedlings weekly, and made an effort to rid my potted garden of the scourge of hungry snails. In a search for the perfect species-directed pesticide, I identified the particular species of nocturnal basil-destroyers as Helix aspersa*. That’s where my poisoning plan took a hard right turn. Helix aspersa, it turns out, are one of several European native terrestrial snails that are edible. Delicious, even. The French call them “Les Petits Gris”, and favour them over the larger species Helix pomatia. Introduced to England from Italy by the Romans, they were regularly eaten well beyond WWII by poor East-Londoners who used a meal of snails to get around the Anglican Church’s no-meat-on-Friday rule – by dubbing them “wall fish.” Such rich history behind these varmints.
Working toward a meal of organic homegrown semi-free-range escargot, the unappetizing parts represent about a third of the work, and they’re all at the beginning of the process. The rest of it is pure gastronomic delight.
By going out a few hours after dark on a rainy day in London, it’s easy to populate an apple crate with 50 snails. I’m keeping about 150 at a time, in two crates. The purpose of keeping them penned up under a lid is two-fold; (1) You can control the food they eat and (2) You can turn off the food supply to induce their dormant state. As regards (1), I feed them the following:
- 2 cups wheat flour
- 1 cup garden lime (chalk)
- handful of broken spaghetti
- 1/2 cup corn meal
I also give mine a weekly treat of a bisected cucumber or apple, or a bundle of cilantro or flatleaf parsley (all organic). I keep the water dish full, I keep the food pile high and dry, and that’s pretty much it. They go about their snail-y business. You need to feed them like this for at least a week, so they clear their digestive systems of whatever they were eating before their incarceration. I like to fatten mine up a little longer, and I’ve even undertaken a successful breeding program, but a week of care-and-feeding is the minimum.
As for (2), about a week or so before you’re ready for your meal, you need to stop feeding and watering them. Ideally this will be around the beginning of the Autumn, as termperatures are cooling off at night. The snail response to lack of food and cooling temperatures is to go dormant. Dormancy is not essential, but much much preferred to the alternative; boiling them wide awake produces meat that’s difficult to deal with in the kitchen, and unappetizing to present at the table.
After a week of not feeding them, put a big pot of water on the stove and set it to boil. Once the water is boiling and on it’s way to a rolling boil, go out in the middle of the day and gather the snails into a basket.
Once the water is at a rolling boil, dump the whole lot into the pot. Let the water return to a boil, and leave the snails in for 3 minutes. Some sets of directions will tell you to “skim the foamy green slime”, but in my experience there’s not enough of it to bother skimming. The water certainly turns green, but this skimming business is easily accomplished by a rinse post-boil.
After 3 minutes, pour the pot through a collander and rinse the snails under cold water.
At this point, there’s a pile of uncooked snail meat that’s ready to be taken out of the shell. Push a two-tine escargot/seafood fork into the meat in the shell and hold it still as you unscrew the shell. It sounds ludicrous, but it works exceptionally well. After no more than half a dozen, you’ll have the hang of it.
Keep the snail meat in a bath of iced brine for at least 15 minutes after shelling. This will not be a problem, as it takes a while to shell them all.
Rinse your bounty. The snail meat can be cooked now, or frozen at this stage.
Empty shells can be cleaned by boiling again. If you wish to use them for restuffing with meat later, boil them a couple times with a strong dose of sodium bicarbonate. This will cause some of the colourful layer to flake off. Fear not. It’s normal. I only bother with it for the largest of the large shells. Empties are super cheap at kitchen shops online.
Parts 2, and 3 coming soon…
* “Helix aspersa” is the older nomenclature for “Cornu aspersum.” To my mind, the correct usage of the old name versus the new, for a species regularly cultivated and eaten, is an argument for the gastropod taxonomists to take on over a nice glass of Beaujolais.