Snails: those slowcoaches of the gastropods, the things you always tread on in your socks with a wet crunch when you take the bins out in winter. Ewww. 'Orrible. On a plate, though … surprisingly not bad.
Even though entomophagy has continued to grow in popularity in the West, many people are still squeamish about eating insects. Snails, however, are far less of a reach, culinarily and biologically speaking—especially if you've ever eaten whelks, conch, periwinkles, or their other cousins from the sea.
In order to learn more about the land-molluscs we should be eating, we caught up with Helen Howard at H&RH Escargots, the UK's principal supplier of live edible snails and snail farm starter kits.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Helen. So, is the UK's heliculture scene finally starting to rival our old foe France in the snail stakes? Helen Howard: Snails are eaten all over the world, not just in France. I hear stories every day about live snails being offered for sale in marketplaces, from Malta and Corsica to Singapore.
Eating snails is part of our cultural heritage in the UK: edible snails were brought here 2,000 years ago by the Romans to eat. They were particularly popular in monasteries where they were classified as fish—wallfish—and so they could be eaten on fast days, and especially during Lent.
Food historians have suggested that they only fell off the menu in the UK at the Reformation, when it became dangerous to do anything that could be seen as associated with Catholicism. But now they are back, with sales increasing year-in year-out, and not just to restaurants but to adventurous cooks everywhere.
Indeed, grow-your-own-food enthusiasts are buying breeders and hatched eggs so they can add snails to their back garden farm.
I heard that your first snail farm was in your spare bedroom. Starting any business involves a lot of outlay before you have income to pay for it. So many small businesses start at the kitchen table. Mine started in the spare bedroom because it was already heated and the space was just aching to be filled.
Are snail farms easy to start? Is it literally a case of going out into the garden and rounding up some snails?Edible snails are specially selected strains of the wild species like any other farm animal. The commonest farmed snails in Europe are descended from the common garden snail and, as every gardener knows, they are perfectly adapted for the damp mild climate in the UK.
What do you feed snails? Snails like to eat a wide range of vegetables and fruit, as well as the everyday green stuff provided by the cabbage family and windfall apple. From time to time mine have benefited from the annual courgette glut and been treated to such delicacies as cherries, plums, mangoes, overripe figs, and bean sprouts.
How do you breed snails? And when do you know when they're ready for sale? One beneficial characteristic of snails is that they are hermaphrodites and all have the capacity to lay eggs. When it comes to breeding, they seem to know what to do and I don't interfere.
They are ready to sell to for cooking when they finish growing—you can see that because the edge of the shell turns up like the brim of a hat.
It sounds absurd to ask, but can talk me through a typical snail slaughter day? Our USP (Unique Selling Point) is that we primarily sell snails live, so there's no such thing as a 'slaughter day'.
Once you've got your snails, how long do they stay fresh? Can you recommend a snail recipe If you buy live snails from us, they will stay in hibernation for a long time in a fridge. But to be on the safe side, it's a good idea to cook them as soon as they arrive. One of my favourite ways to eat snails is on a pizza; they go very well with mushrooms, having a similar texture and flavour, if they are given a long slow cook in well-flavoured stock. I cook them with local cider for an extra-special taste.
You supply many Michelin-starred chefs—but you also supply London Zoo. There are lots of reptiles that eat snails. We supply three zoos along with a whole host of reptile owners who only want the best for their pets. In the wild, snails have so many predators, from hedgehogs and birds to carnivorous beetles—it is a wonder to me that they ever became a garden pest.
As a nation, are we missing out on a cracking ingredient? Should we stop being squeamish and eat more snails? We've been eating seafood in the UK for centuries and snails have similar food value. Old-fashioned seafood stalls have returned to holiday resorts, and you can see holidaymakers enjoying potted shrimps and fresh cockles. We've even got restaurants that serve nothing but mussels—so what's the problem?
Snails don't taste of the sea; they taste like mushrooms. And if they are cooked properly, they have a lovely soft texture. Go on, try one. You know you want to!
I will! Thanks for speaking to me, Helen.