garden snails

Helix Aspersa

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 Roman 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.

Collecting Snails

The best time to catch snails is after a downpour. At this time of year, 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 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.

Of course, you can save a lot of time and effort and just buy them live from snail farms. You can even buy them on eBay!

Cooking them

Gordon Ramsays preparing and cooking garden snails

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, it does a mussel.

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.

French escargo

Heston Blumenthal adds them to porridge, or at Paris House, you can have their snail garden.

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