On The Snail Trail

Virgil Evetts

I used to view snails on a dinner plate with such squinty-eyed scepticism – for all the usual reasons I suppose – their sliminess, their squelchyness, the havoc they wreck in the garden. On the rare occasions when I’ve felt (reluctantly) compelled to push aside this prejudice for a tong-full of butter-sodden, grilled (and most assuredly tinned) escargot, I’ve been underwhelmed at best  by what little flavour was left standing under the onslaught of garlic (and quietly horrified if I’ve paused to examine what I’m slipping into my mouth). So it would be safe to say that up until very recently, when I experienced a minor gastropodal epiphany, I was no great fan of the snail in any way, shape, form or location.

 

It’s quite an achievement to change a person’s (culinary) perspective – period; and pure witchcraft to do so with the lowly snail.  Yet Raewynne Achten and Jaye Sims, of Hawkes Bay-based Silver Trail Snails, managed just that with this humble food freak. I met this good keen pair of snail-pokes at a small soirée in Napier recently which featured the fine company and wares of several esteemed Hawkes Bay food and wine producers.  While there was much to ooh and ahh over that evening, the star attractions for me, and certainly the cause of the greatest stir, were Silver Trails’ fabulous fresh snails -served either crumbed and deep fried, or in the form of an excellent pâté with pork shoulder. I can be a jaded, unmoveable cynic at times (more often than not if I’m honest), but these snails delivered exactly what I crave in food – surprise, excitement and innovation.

 

Unlike the black and very chewy tinned French (-labelled but mostly Thai-produced) Burgundian snails, which are the most commonly available in New Zealand, fresh petit gris (garden snails) have a delicate texture, reminiscent of very good squid, and a flavour somewhere between clams (cockles) and mushrooms.  They really are quite startling good – not that I should be surprised; snails have been eaten by humans throughout the world for thousands of years and have acquired the status of a true delicacy in many cuisines. Unlike many ‘gross – factor’ novelty foods (scorpions, snakes, prairie oysters et al), snails are not merely edible, they’re delicious. I’m just sorry I wasted so many years determinedly avoiding them.

 

While the larger Burgundian (Helix pomatia) variety is the most famous of the European edible land snails, it’s considered by some to be inferior to the common garden snail, or petit gris (Helix aspersa).  This is the very same creature we routinely poison with pellets, stomp on with glee and curse to Hades in the vege patch.  Now before you get too caught up in flights of fancy (as I did) about making the best of a bad situation, although a committed gardener/cook technically could harvest and prepare their back-yard nemesis, it is a laborious and time-consuming process. The snails require a protracted period of purging on bran  to clean their guts of toxic or disease-carrying matter, followed by a great deal of fiddly cooking and shelling. A job best left to the experts methinks. Having said all that, one of these days, too-much-time on-his-hands food geek that I am, I’ll probably give it a whirl.

 

 

Snail farming, or heliciculture (who knew it had a name?), is certainly a specialist field and a rather niche endeavour to say the least.  Silver Trails are currently the only commercial operation in New Zealand, but through the sheer quality of their products have earned a loyal following among some of New Zealand’s best-known chefs, including Tony Astle (Antoine’s) and Martin Bosley (Martin Bosley’s Yacht Club Restaurant). 

Raewynne and Jaye originally conceived of the business as a means of making a relatively easy income from their modest Hawkes Bay lifestyle block. But the pair quickly learned that snail farming is not quite the walk in the park they had imagined and, being as it was an almost unchartered territory in New Zealand, they endured their fair share of pioneering trial and error along the way. But despite the best efforts of marauding birds, and the unpredictable extremes of the Hawkes Bay climate – ranging from scorching heat to floods – the business prevailed and is now turning more than a few heads in food trade, with production increasing every year. Silver Trails expects a harvest of around 100,000 snails this summer season alone.

 

Silver Trails breed and rear their snails in outdoor enclosures, which offer shade and protection from predators as well as plenty of food in the form of living brassicas and plantain. Only the biggest, plumpest snails are selected for harvesting, which occurs during the summer months when they are most active and rapidly gaining weight.  The snails are sold pre-cooked, whole and un-gutted. This makes for a better-looking (the blackened splatter that is the tinned and gutted French snail attests to this) and, experts insist, better-tasting snail.

 

 

At present Silver Trails supply fresh, whole snails direct to restaurants, and jars of snails preserved in white wine and cider vinegars for the general retail market. The snail and pork shoulder paté mentioned earlier is still a product in development, but I for one would be greedily pleased if it appeared for sale (hint-hint if you’re reading this Raewynne and Jaye) in the future. It has all the best qualities of a rustic French country pate with a unique and delicate sweetness imparted by the snails. My kind of food.

 

The world is awash with recipes for snails if you care to look – from paella to pasta, risotto to soup – but to the snail neophyte, and let’s face it, that’s most of us, I would suggest starting with something a little less confrontational. The standard French bistro approach is to pop the pre-cooked snail back into the shell along with a generous plug of parsley-flecked garlic butter (go easy on the garlic with this recipe, as the fragile snail flavour can be lost so easily), and then grill until sizzling and oh-so-fragrant.  This makes a fine and dandy morsel when served with good, crunchy baguette and plenty of rough red wine.

 

The best way to approach any natural revoltion you may have at the thought of eating snails is to remember that, in fact, all shellfish – be they mussels, oysters, paua or clams – are really just types of snails. If you enjoy eating those, land snails shouldn’t be too big a leap.

Do try snails if, or when, the opportunity should present itself, because like me you might just discover a slimy new love.

 

 

We have a jar of beautiful Hawkes Bay snails- kindly supplied by Silver Trails Snails- to give away to one lucky Foodlovers reader. To enter, just tell us about the scariest thing you’ve ever eaten…

 

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19 thoughts on “On The Snail Trail

  1. You wished to know the scariest thing I have eaten… try armadillo… loved it but had to do this in Trinidad. Introduced my oh so English father in law to it in Tobago. He enjoyed it only until he discovered Tatou was the French translation. I think though frogs legs worse.

  2. as an entry to be eligible for some delicacy from Snail Trail, I wish to tell you about my weirdest meal.
    It was in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, in 1982; I was on an assignment to survey a road access to inland/inbush villages to the west of Madang.
    One afternoon, my group and I arrived at village and we planned to settle in for the night.
    The women of the village invited us to share their meal….
    Kuskus (Tree kangaroo) passed over flames to remove the fur, then cut-up and boiled in a big pot with local vegetables. The smell and taste of the singed furn was overpowering but I ate my share stoickly so as to honor our hosts and “do what the locals do”.
    It was just-just !!
    Needless to say that I promised myself to stay clear of that kind of delicacy in the future.!!!

  3. Not long ago, I boiled up a mutton bird. While the odors that came off were not familiar ones, I was not deterred until I looked at the thick layer of fat that was on the bird and noticed that it’s consistancy was that of firm Vaseline. I did manage to taste it and did not find it to my liking. However, I did have to admire the richness of it and realized that if I had grown up with such flavors, I could really enjoy it.
    The meat itself I found acceptable and don’t count trying it as much of an accomplishment, but that fat has to rank as my scariest mouthful.

  4. I would like to offer snails Helix pomatia breaded under Romanian Technology in an ecologically clean area using certified food. I would be glad to see any interest and I am ready to answer all your questions.

  5. Wow some people eat some odd things.I to would like to try snails. The oddest thing have eaten is mountain oysters (calf testicles) sauted in butter they are ok.

  6. Wow Tabitha, that’s a seriously unpleasant story! I will eat a lot of things but I would have to draw the line at monkey. Chances are, in Malaysia it would have just been a grey macaque, which are far from endangered- they’re can be a serious pest, BUT they are about as intelligent as a 2 year old child and being fairly closely related could potentially pass on all sorts of interesting diseases to humans. No monkey no thank you!
    Sounds like your conscience will keep you off the primates in future though…

  7. When I was back in Malaysia a few years ago, my dad took us to a Chinese restaurant that did fantastic food as well as illegal meats. Now I’m not one to cringe at the chewy, the smelly, the slimy and the strange having enjoyed morsels of delight from snails to squirrels but I sure had problems with this dish cautionarily called on the menu, “Queen of the Jungle”. It was chopped, braised and served steaming in a claypot, which was fine by me… It’s juicy dark red meat looked tantalising and smelt amazing too… So far so good. But I just couldn’t get over the idea that I was about to chew and swallow the meat of my fellow ancestor: MONKEY. It took me awhile. I stared and thought about the creatures swinging in the trees. I stared and thought about which parts I was about to consume: tail? arm? torso?? Finally, I took my first nibble…and have to say it actually tasted quite good, like venison! But the moment I swallowed, I felt incredibly guilty and sick in my stomach. The worse was that later on that night, I went to sleep and had nightmares about eating my own cousin!!! Something about him having to sacrifice his meat for our family…. :(

  8. Must try some of these.

    Scariest food?

    Heck, I’m not scared of much. The food I do not look forward to is the stuff that hasn’t been cooked/seasoned properly.

  9. Maggie if you’re really keen to do this, you certainly don’t need to buy the live stock! I wouldnnt bother breeding snails unless you plan on eating a lot of them and regularly. Your backyard will yield more than enough for the occasional treat. Just find the biggest, healthiest looking snails in your garden and prepare them. Instructions for purging, cooking and shelling are available on the net. Be careful where you collect your snails from- pesticides and poisonous foliage can make for toxic snails.

  10. I have thought about growing gourmet snails for home use for some time having tried them several times. Does anyone know where I could buy some live ones? M

  11. When visiting China many years ago for a set menu lunch were served dog meat (seemed like a pate). It seemed very scented. I only had very little, mainly because I knew what it was otherwise it would have probably been ok. Then on another visit to hong kong a friend who is a local ordered lunch for us and wouldn’t tell us what we were eating until after we had tried. One dish he ordered was coagulated chicken blood. Tasted a bit like liver and was a texture like tofu. Not one of my better experiences.

  12. I don’t really do scary as I’m a bona fide coward, but if you tell me it’s chicken – I will have a go: e.g. big fat grilled hoo hoo grubs, frog legs, one hundred year old cheese (buried in the desert) and pigeon brains, which though miniscule, were absolutely, out there magnificent. I was initially happy to eat the pigeon with the head attached by closing my left eye so I’d avoid looking at it, but when mine host attacked it with a mallet to crack open the skull, I thought I would pass out. I did pass out with the hundred year old cheese though…phrrorr!! man it was ranker than skunk pizza.
    Kina guts would be my undoing so well done Lynley. That TePohue pub was a cracker of a place back when I was a girl, where I was first initiated into its delights by being bribed with a raspberry soda (I’d learned to suck by then) whilst sitting in the car waiting for the mater and pater.
    The strange thing is, this morning I was thinking I’d make a snail and chicken mousse tortellini to christen my new pasta machine; so win or not win, I will be buying a jar of Silver Trail snails and I’m confessing that I’m terrified of eating the blasted things and have no idea why I’m torturing myself as I’ve managed to avoid them all my life. I don’t fancy winkles either and I’d never be able to convince myself bull’s bollocks and ram’s eyeballs were chicken. Mind you, I used to feel the same way about olives and parmesan and now I worship them.
    Ahhh, just remembered. The very worst thing I ever ate was a horse saveloy in France. Disgusting. We were camping in the rain and had the bbq alight and had earlier been to the local mache where I spied saveloys waiting for me, saying – “buy me buy me yum yum”. Big, rosy plump and phallic looking. It was only after I’d spat out the first mouthful, that the meanest man in the world I am married to, smirkingly told me what was in them.

  13. Old Kina guts in a jam jar (I think) that was passed around a circle of beer drinking men at a tangi I went to in TePohue a long time ago. Follwed by some rotten corn – waaay out of my comfort zone, as I was pregnant at the time, yet I got the feeling it would have been rude not to…mother and baby doing fine!

  14. Food wise I will try most things once, although I do find that ignorance is bliss, the only way I could tell it was monkey was by its fur!

  15. My only experience with snails was many years ago, and they were deliciously garlicky buttery rubber bands. I would love to try again. Deep fried tarantulas: I don’t think so, but (and this might be another blog subject entirely for you, Virgil) I have never eaten shell-on prawns in the way that I understand is de rigeur. What sort of prawns? Are they cooked till crunchy? How big? And don’t the legs and feelers get stuck in your teeth? I need educating on this please?

  16. As a toddler the pinkie on my right hand was a delightful shade of yellow due to it being used as a ‘pick’ to remove garden snails from their shells. I had no qualms in devouring said snails. This must have gone some way to helping develop the cast-iron constitution I now have, it being extremely rare for me to succumb to any form of food related ‘tummy bugs’. I don’t think I would be so keen to try snails again, nor would I be keen on any form of insect life, such as was seen on a TV programme earlier this week (Can’t remember which one). However, I have eaten and very much enjoyed snake in Dallas, Texas. After all, I love eel, so why not snake? And I also tried Mexican-style frogs legs at the same restaurant, but the legs being well doused with chili, I would be willing to try them again without the mouth numbing quality of the Mexican seasoning.

  17. Like you Virgil, I have tried the tinned escargot at a French restaurant some time ago and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about – it was decidedly average. But this kiwi product certainly sounds as though it is worth following up on the next time I am in NZ.
    As for food fears – I ate barbecued snake when we were in Siem Reap last month and it was neither delicious nor repulsive. I’ve tried and tasted it, and probably wouldn’t do it again. Couldn’t bring myself to try the deep-fried tarantulas, although my mate did and as he said “just about anything deep-fried in a gallon of oil until it is crunchy, then salted and served hot will taste fine!”