There is a feast lurking at the bottom of your garden.
By Alex Renton, Times Online
It’s very wrong to toss snails over the garden wall into your neighbours’ nasturtiums. Far better to eat them: they don’t come back from that. Don’t flinch: the common garden snail, helix aspersa, is the one known as petit gris in France, smaller and far more prized for cooking than the official edible snail. There is a feast lurking in the dark corners of your garden.
The Romans, it is said, introduced the brown snail to Britain, for their own pleasure. The statesman and agriculturalist Cato the Elder wrote that you should feed the snails on wine-soaked bran and keep and breed them in a paddock with a water-filled trench around it. This, he says, saves the expense of keeping a slave to catch escapers. Until quite recently snails were rural pub fare from Somerset to Sunderland, but now people — even my wife — are strangely squeamish about them. All the more for us, we snail eaters say.
There are some foodies who complain that snails are only texture, and that they could be confused with a bit of sandal or garden hose. Snails they say, are merely a chewy vehicle for garlic, parsley and butter and good bread. But this I think is the legacy of bad experiences in French restaurants where, rumour has it, strips of curled sheep tripe have been substituted for the gastropods when the English arrive. There is also the sad sham of tinned snails. Snails fresh and at their best are succulent, mysterious and intriguingly green-tasting — very rewarding for the cook who likes a reaction from his subjects. Try not telling them until after the meal.
Collecting snails is easy, especially if you have small children to hand. When you’ve got a dozen or so per dinner guest you need to put them under a bucket or box with air holes in it, somewhere damp and shady, and let the snails detox for a week. Feed them lettuce or bran. When you’re ready, boil them for a minute to kill them. Then they should come out quite easily from their shells, with a pin if necessary. You must soak them in very salty water for half an hour, rinse them and then repeat the process. After that the slime should now be gone. If not, do it again.
My mother, who has been cooking snails from the garden since the 1970s, stews them gently with an onion and herbs for 90 minutes. She drains them and puts them in useful little earthenware snail dishes with half a dozen little hollows in them. (The shells are too fiddly, and too hot to hold if they come straight from the oven.) Then she fills the hollows with garlic and parsley butter, and grills the dishes until the butter bubbles.
But there are many other methods. All around Europe people glory in snails, particularly the Portuguese: I’ve had them stewed with herbs and chorizo. The Spanish put them with rabbit meat in a paella — slime and turf. Germans make a chowder from them, and the Maltese simmer them in red wine with tomato and garlic. The chef Fergus Henderson sautés his snails in a reduction of wine and shallots, then he tosses them in a lettuce salad with bits of fried bread.
I’ve always meant to try Escoffier’s “snails as a greedy man likes them”, where the cooked snails are stuffed back into their shells in a “meat jelly”, topped with butter with pepper, parsley and garlic and then baked for 10 minutes. He served them with a cap of bread crumbs fried in butter.
And what about the slugs, you wonder? They’re not so very different, anatomically, and they come shell-free. In the Hebrides they used to chop up the big black ones, salt them and store them for use in the hungry days of the winter. Then the crofters would stew the slugs with oatmeal in a porridge. Bet they wished they had some olive oil and garlic.
Be warned: Snails in the shell can be slippery devils. ;)