By Mike on Saturday, August 9, 2008, 14:43 - Permalink
Time to get a bit more adventurous with this wild food thing - I'm going to try eating snails.
What Kind Of Snails?
Helix aspersa - The common garden snail - known to the French as Petit Gris (little grey) - it takes second place behind Helix pomatia - the Roman Snail or Apple Snail - which is larger and is the type most commonly served in restaurants, but the common snail is still highly regarded as food.
I didn't have any trouble finding some - I just pulled back some vegetation in the garden and there were loads of them lurking beneath.
An even easier way to gather them is to take a torch and go outside at night - especially after or during rain - they all come out of hiding and can be just picked up off the ground. If you're collecting them for any kind of sustained period, you'll need a container with a lid to prevent them escaping - what they lack in speed, they make up for in determination.
Purging The Snails
Before the snails are eaten, they must be purged - this means keeping them confined and feeding them on a one-item diet - usually bran or herbs.
Often the purging is done in a basket, but I've made my snail jail out of an old ice cream tub - drilled with lots of holes for ventilation.
They'll be kept in there for five days, eating nothing but sliced carrot, then they will be starved for 48 hours before cooking.
The base of the container is made of bamboo barbecue skewers, pushed through holes drilled into either end - this is to prevent the snails getting stuck in any mess that might accumulate at the bottom of the container.
Into the third day of purging, the container had become quite messy, so I enlarged one of the drain holes in the bottom (below the bamboo grid) - now I can run the container under the garden tap to wash away all the snail poop - and there was a lot of it.
The snails seem to enjoy being rinsed - insofar as they are able to express enjoyment (which is not much).
On the fifth day, I removed all of the food from the container and gave the snails another rinse - they're looking nice and clean now and are still attempting to escape whenever the lid is removed.
Ready For Cooking
Day seven - the snails have been fed the purging diet for five days, then nothing for 48 hours - they're ready for cooking. I took them out of the snail jail and rinsed them under running water - shaking them gently to make them retract into their shells.
Apparently, all land snails in the UK are edible - that's not to say all of them can and should be eaten - many species are just too small to bother with - others are rare.
The two main targets for the table are the Roman Snail (which, as the name suggests, was introduced here by the Romans - but this is only common in some localities, not including mine) and the Garden Snail - of which many can be found in nearly every garden.
Possible Health Risks
Land snails can harbour an unpleasant parasite called Lungworm in one of its larval phases, which can then infect humans if they are consumed without adequate preparation - the risk is mitigated by thorough cooking - unlike so many marine shellfish, which are minimally cooked, snails must be boiled for at least 5 minutes - and erring on the side of caution is best - go for ten or fifteen minutes.
I started by gently cooking a couple of cloves of garlic and a small onion, chopped finely, in about 40g of butter over a low heat.
I put a large pan of salted water on and when it was boiling, I dropped the snails into it
The snails were boiled for ten minutes (the water turns a deep yellow-green colour - I assume this is normal. I drained and rinsed the snails again.
Removing them from their shells was interesting and requires a bit of technique - jabbing the flesh of the snail with a pin or cocktail stick and unwinding it out of the shell.
I was surprised to discover that the body of the snail occupies the entire shell - so after removal from the shells, they still retain their spiral shape.
They were still a bit slimy at this point, so I sprinkled them with a teaspoonful of salt and left them for a minute, then rinsed again - which improved them a lot.
Then I brought up the heat under the garlic, onions and butter and tipped in the snails - when it started to bubble vigorously, I added a dash of brandy, then simmered for another minute
Then I served them, nestled in a dish of mashed potato, dressed with the garlic butter... now for the verdict of tasting...
Eating The Snails
I served the cooked snails in a nest of mashed potatoes, along with the garlic and onion butter sauce. There's not really any way to make this dish look pretty - it is what it is.
It's true what everybody says - all you really taste is whatever sauce you cooked them in. I did discern what I thought was a slight earthy, shellfishy sort of taste, but maybe there was a fair bit of wishful thinking involved in that.
The experience of eating them is not bad - they're a little slippery in the mouth, but not slimy - slightly chewy and slightly resilient - but not in any kind of an unpleasant way. All in all, the experience is similar to, say, eating mussels or even garlic mushrooms.
Nice enough - not something I'd rave about, I guess, but good enough to do again sometime. I think the biggest selling point here is that it's free food - organic and free-range too - they must be pretty high in protein and minerals, I would think. A bit high on the fat when served dripping with butter though.
If Snails Are Edible, Why Not Slugs?
A friend asked me this one the other day - and it's a good question - I have some big snails in the garden, but the slugs are truly monstrous - so can they be eaten in the same way?
I don't think so. Pick up a snail and it protects itself by retracting into its shell - do the same with a slug and it exudes copious quantities of viscous, gelatinous slime - I don't think there's going to be any way to remove that from the slug and have anything worthwhile left for eating.
If slugs were worth eating, people would be doing it the world over - they're not, so that must mean something.