All snails in Britain are edible. They’re essentially the same creatures that the French, Spanish and Italians devour by the tonne.
Types of Snail
The larger Roman snail, helix pomatia, introduced by their Italian namesake as a food source, are protected in the UK, but not so in France. There, they are known as escargot de Bourgogne.
That leaves us with helix aspersa, the common garden snail. It’s a reasonable size for eating, and extremely plentiful, as anybody with an allotment will know.
If you set aside the emotion of it all, it makes perfect sense to eat snails. Why kill them with poison or the sharp edge of a spade when you can use them properly, for food?
It’s a far more ethical and sustainable approach.
There’s a cultural angle to the whole act of eating a snail that simply revolts many British people, which is a shame because snails are very good to eat.
After all us Brits have been eating winkles and whelks at the seaside for as long as I can remember. Land snail, sea snail what’s the difference?
The best time to catch edible snails is after a downpour. In late spring, early summer, the conditions are perfect – the humidity and dampness draws the little blighters out from under their rocks and out of their cracks and into the open at dusk. A quick shower, a mild evening, a bucket and a strong torch are all you’ll need for a bountiful hunt.
The French know this already, of course.
Snails need to be prepared quite thoroughly before they’re ready to cook. You don’t know where they’ve been and what they’ve been eating, so you need to change that by controlling their diet for a few days.
Put the snails into a container of some sort – a wicker basket of some sort or something equally breathable is ideal – along with a carrot, and cover the container with something suitably heavy and snail proof. A roofing slate or something like that would be ideal. Put the container somewhere shady, out of the sun.
The next day, rinse the snails and the container with cold water to clean away any…droppings. Replace the carrot and cover again. Repeat this cleaning process for at least four days, by which time, the diet of carrot should be very evident from the colour of the snail’s waste product…it should be orange.
At this stage, you can be confident that you know what’s in the snail’s stomachs, but you don’t want to eat that.
Time to get it out.
Remove the carrot, but continue the daily rinsing routine. Do this for a further three or four days, to purge the snails of all waste products and to make sure that they’re very clean.
Just Before Cooking
Just before you start to cook them, give the snails a final bath in plenty of water in a bucket, to make sure that all grit is removed from their shells.
Put the cleaned snails into a bowl, cover with a plate and place in the fridge for half an hour – the cold forces the snails to retract into their shells and puts them into a deep sleep.
Cooking is easy. Make a court bouillon, a simple vegetable stock flavoured with herbs, carrot, celery, onion and whatever else you’ve got in the fridge, and bring it to a rolling boil. The snails simply go straight into the pot. The heat kills them straight away, in the same way, as it does mussels.
Cook for about fifteen minutes, making sure that the stock stays at just under boiling point.
Fish the cooked snails out with a slotted spoon and let them cool for a while before using a pin or a pair of tweezers to drag the flesh out of the shells. It will come out quite easily once you get hold of it.
Then you have to remove the cloaca – the black part at the end of the guts.
The traditional French way of preparing snails is to stuff the snail back into its shell with a drop of stock and a lot of garlic butter then roasting in the oven for about ten minutes.
Heston Blumenthal adds them to porridge, or at Paris House, you can have their snail garden.
If you really want to indulge in a bit luxury, you can spoil yourself with some snail caviar.
The Snail Caviar or Snail Eggs are called Caviar d’escargot (and even White Caviar) in France. They brand it under a commercial name “Perles de France” meaning pearly of France.
Caviar d’escargot retails at around £1500 per kg. As each snail only lays 100 eggs a year it is as expensive as the best Beluga caviar.
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