Forgotten Feast: SNAILS.... Real "Slow Food"

Due to the current el nino weather pattern, it certainly doesn't feel like December 28. The ditches are full of frogs, the birds are singing, mushrooms are popping up.... and snails are still active.  Few people in the south (actually, none I've ever met) eat snails, which is a shame.  Although the south is literally covered in the garden ravaging common brown snail, it is not native.  The common brown snail (Cornu aspersum) was brought here by early immigrants to be raised as food.

I am not sure where I first heard about eating brown snails.... obviously, I heard about escargot being served in restaurants most of my life - in fact, my parents carried canned escargot in their grocery store when I was a child - and several recipes appeared in the cookbooks on my mother's shelf.  Those snails though are larger and the shell prettier, so they make good restaurant fare.  However, I distinctly recall watching a program when I was around age 10, from which I learned that in many European countries the small, brown snail is considered preferable for food.  Somewhere along the line, I began viewing them as food and sought out their preparation.

NOTE: Some people confuse snails with slugs.  Snails are the ones with the shells.  So far as I know, slugs are not considered to be good to eat and I certainly have no desire to try them.  Snails, however, are merely mollusks like clams, mussels or conchs, that have adapted to living on land.  Like most mollusks, they are tasty but can be tough if not prepared correctly.

Wild snails (actually feral, I suppose) are plentiful and delicious.  Anyone who does not eat these snails is not only missing a delicious meal and a free, easily stored and farmed source of protein, but is also missing an opportunity to help safely and organically control a common garden pest..... why use pesticides when you can eat the critters?

When you gather wild snails, be sure they have not been exposed to pesticides.  You can find them crawling on the ground and eating your garden vegetables at night.  In  the daytime, look under moss, leaves, pinestraw or rocks.  In town, you will probably find a few under the covers of under ground water or gas meters.  Gather as many as you can find - there is no shortage.  Carry them home in a bag and then place them into a glass or plastic, lidded container.  Snails will eat through cardboard and will try to escape, so you will need a lid or screen that is perforated to allow air in but seal tight.  Place a vessel of water in the container - I usually use an old, plastic jar lid -- and give them some all purpose (plain) flour to eat.  They eat ravenously and will quickly purge their systems with flour and water.... you will know they have once their poop is white.

To prepare your snails for cooking, plunge them into boiling, salted water. Once the water returns to the boil, turn it off and place a lid on it.  About 15 minutes later, scoop them out.  This par-boiling serves three purposed.  1) it kills them.  2) it takes the "snail slime" away.  3) It allows yo to easily remove them from the shell. You can cool them and store them in your refrigerator for a few days at this point, or cook them now.

You can use most any recipe for clams or mussels to cook your snails, but the classic French dish is clams cooked in butter, garlic, white wine, salt and pepper.  I like mine with a little cream too... and some tarragon, crumbled bacon and a squeeze of lemon.  Bread dipped in the sauce is very good.  They make wonderful soups and stews, are great over pasta like a clam sauce and can also be good fried if you grind them first and make little patties with eggs and bread crumbs.  

A few years ago, when fall weather set in and I was preparing to move back to the mountains (where it is too cold for wild snails to live) I found 3 brown snails by the water meter.  I bought a cheap, clear plastic storage container, drilled a few holes int he bottom and many holes in the lid, put in a layer of gravel and covered this with moss.  I put the snails in there with a cup of water recessed to moss level and took this little terrarium with me when I moved and fed them raw vegetable scraps.

When winter moved in, I stopped watering them and they soon went dormant.  Over winter, snails withdraw into their shells and form a dry protective film over its opening.  They will stay in this suspended animation until they encounter warmth and moisture.  The immigrants who brought them here are said to have traveled with them in this state, carrying large sacks of snails to cultivate in the New World.

When Spring came, I sprinkled water over the moss, filled their cup and put a few lettuce leaves in the box.  Soon, the snails emerged and devoured the lettuce.  I fed them apple cores, radish tops, cabbage leaves, corn cobs.... any raw vegetable or fruit scraps.  Snails change sex as needed to reproduce, so in a few weeks I began to see little pearly snail eggs.  A few weeks after that, I had a few dozen tiny snails devouring even more vegetation - they eat like chickens!  Once those matured, I began to harvest a few and due to limited space, I began to harvest the eggs as well.  I sprayed a little saltwater on the eggs and ate them like caviar - the eggs taste like very mild, slightly mushroom flavored fish roe..... subtle but delicious!

I thought I was in the snail farming business, but late that year my snails caught a cold and all died off.  I learned later that They are best kept in a larger, outdoor pen planted with radishes.  The radishes and fresh air are thought to keep them healthy.  I have been too transient the past few years to give it another try, but I look forward to raising snails again.  Snails are free food, easily propagated and stored, nutritious and delicious.... for what more could you ask?!!!

Photos are from Wikipedia - here is the link for the photos and more information:


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