Home » Gleaning, Growing Food

Backyard Escargot

12 January 2009 43 Comments

A garden snail. Could you eat it?Would you eat escargot (i.e. snails) in a fancy French restaurant?

Would you buy prepared snails from a deli and cook them at home?

What about eating snails from your garden?

I was doing some research, trying to figure out how to get rid of snails in gardens, and discovered that the garden snails we get around here are the helix aspersa variety. These are known as petit gris (“little grey”) to the French, and prized as one of the two main escargot varieties.

Snails. Could you stop at one?That got me thinking – could you eat garden snails?

I’ve eaten snails before in a fancy French restaurant. They were OK, although truth be told the dish was more about the garlic butter than the actual snails.

We have lots of snails around here. I don’t particularly want them in my garden, and they’re there simply for the picking up. The food miles are zero. It all seems to add up. What if they’re delicious and I’ve been ignoring them all these years?

Some more research turned up a lot of different methods for preparing garden snails for the kitchen. I decided to follow the most-recommended procedures.

Snails being purged in a bucket with lettuce.I kept about a dozen snails in a bucket with just lettuce to eat for about 10 days. This has two purposes: one is to purge the dirt and grit from their systems, and the other is to make sure they haven’t been recently poisoned. I rinsed the bucket out daily, and gave them fresh lettuce. They ate the lettuce and none died, so they were clear of poisons and were healthy.

The next step is to boil the snails in their shells. Depending which book or web site you read, you can boil them for anything from 8 to 30 minutes. I did it for 15. About half way through I replaced the water with boiling water from the kettle – it had gotten a bit gunky and was slightly off-colour. The replacement water didn’t discolour.

Cooked snails being cooled before shelling.After boiling, you use a toothpick or prawn fork to pull the snails from the shells. I rinsed them, as they were a little slimy. If you were being fancy, you’d keep the shells for presentation, but I couldn’t be bothered – I just wanted to know what they’d taste like.

The proper way to cook the snails is to return them to their shells with butter and garlic, put them on a tray in the oven until the butter starts to bubble, and then remove them and serve.

A cooked snail, removed from the shell.Instead, I drizzled olive oil into a frying pan and added a knob of butter and some chopped garlic. I threw the snails in and fried them for a short time, then served them onto a plate. I figure that’s similar enough to the ‘official’ oven method.

So how did they taste?

Better than you’d expect, but to me not really worth the effort. They were slightly rubbery, a bit like calamari, and didn’t have any kind of distinct flavour. It was basically just meat with garlic butter. Personally, I’d rather feed the snails to the chooks and turn them into eggs!

The final product - snails in garlic butter.I was later telling a friend about cooking escargot, and she was really interested. She’s had them before in restaurants, and is an adventurous gourmand. She asked where I got them (thinking I’d discovered a cool new deli or something), and as soon as I said “the garden” she thought the whole thing was disgusting.

Why is buying an unusual delicacy OK, but growing it yourself disgusting? What’s the difference?

43 Comments »

  • Em said:

    What a coincidence – this week I’ve been cleaning out the bookshelves and revisiting a lot of cookbooks to decide if they deserve shelf space; a Stephanie Alexander book described going through the same process you did, to sate her curiousity! (And of course I’ve been eyeing off our snails, wondering if I’m brave enough…) Thanks for the post, very interesting!

    Do you think the revulsion thing is partly from being removed from food production? – most people don’t engage in any form of food production now, and we are taught that dirt, bugs, blood are icky. That somehow food picked from the wild or butchered outside of sterilised white walls is dirty; that food has to come with labels and packaging.

    Our neighbours’ child visits often and squeals with revulsion at worms and crawling things (which my boys love), she’s suspicious of our habit of picking food from the plants and eating it immediately, she doesn’t like our carrots b/c they have dirt on them when you pull them up. But over 2 years of visiting she has slowly let go a little, and even eats (washed) carrots with the kids now!

  • Darren (author) said:

    Hi Em, and welcome! I’m just about to go check out your site…

    Yes, I absolutely think it’s because most people are far removed from food production. Anything bought from the store has been given the OK by whoever it is that gets to decide what’s approved for eating. Stuff you pick up off the ground or from plants in the garden is dirty, untested, and probably infected with terrible diseases and parasites. 🙂

    I was reading a blog last night where someone talked about getting eggs from their chickens, and a commenter asked whether they’d had their eggs tested to make sure they’re OK to eat! They said it as if store-bought cage eggs don’t come out of a sickly chicken’s butt. Hehe.

    Good on you for educating the neighbour’s child. A dose of the real thing never hurt anybody.

    Have a go at the snails. It’s worth it just to see how it’s done. You can do like I did and chop them up, so they look less like actual snails when you’re eating them.

  • Donna said:

    Hi Darren, fantastic!! idea. I doubt weather or not i would eat them personally ha ha.. Not that there from the garden or anything like that but i just don’t think i could eat snails. I saw a show once on how they made goose neck. there is a fancy name for it but not sure how you spell it.. THey force feed the goose by shoving food down its neck. ITs supposed to be a delicacy. I’d just prefer chicken ha ha…. Did the council photograph that. As that would ge a great story…

    Cheers. donna

  • Darren (author) said:

    Hi Donna. People do some weird things in the pursuit of delicacies! Like fois gras, where they force-feed geese to engorge their liver to many times its normal size. That’s pretty cruel. At least the snails didn’t suffer :-).

    Nah, council didn’t take any photos of the snails. I’m not sure I want to be on the front page of the Illawarra Mercury sucking a snail from its shell!

  • Catawba ConvertiCoops said:

    Reading this reminded me of an experiment I did last summer. I found a hornworm chomping on one of my tomatoes, and had eaten a large portion of it. I thought, “You turkey. If you’re going to eat my plants, I’m going to eat you.”

    Word to the wise. You need to starve your caterpillars for a day before frying them. I threw the grub into the skillet. Shortly thereafter it started making a WHEEEEEE sound and the rear end of the thing blew out, spraying digested tomato leaf across the pan and stinking up the kitchen.

    I still ate it. It was nasty. I do not recommend hornworm as a main dish.

  • Darren (author) said:

    Oh man, you’re more game than me Catawba! I’m picturing a scene from Shrek, where he eats the grubs :-).

  • Jacqui said:

    Hi Darren – thanks for your recent visit to Life in the Dome. It was great to get your comments on our efforts to grow spuds and to come here and read how you went, particularly with stored them – we have two more beds to dig up so we’ll need to make sure we do it right. They are so lovely to eat.

    This post made me smile – I’m so pleased to have found this blog – I think Em is right re most of us being removed from food production. I am as guilty as the next when it comes to eating meat – I can only do it because I don’t have any experience of slaughter. I can’t even bring myself to eat our roosters – pathetic, as I love eating chicken. I try to compensate for this by buying from smaller producers who free-range their chooks and feed them well but still…

    I’ve told the girls about your recipe for snails and they said they prefer to eat them raw – v. amusing to watch them chase the winner around the Dome trying to snatch it from her. I’m sure your chooks would agree 🙂

    Catawba! You don’t want to cross that one if you’re a grub. Hilarious!!

  • Darren (author) said:

    Hi Jacqui! And Welcome! I’ve been enjoying your blog too.

    From what I’ve read with storing spuds, you want to keep them somewhere dark, cool and airy (so they stay dry). It’s also best to prevent them from touching each other, so if any rot or disease starts it won’t spread through your whole stash. We kept them in a cardboard box, with layers of hessian between each layer of potatoes. It worked well, although we ate them all within a month or so!

    I agree about being removed from our food chain. I don’t think it matters if you can’t do the actual killing yourself; you’re still choosing to buy from responsible producers who raise their animals the right way.

  • Michelle said:

    Enjoyed reading about the snails. Have tried a tiny one but tcouldnt taste it for the garlic so you were right there. They do much the same in France with the frogs legs in garlic.

    I once saw a program where an English couple had bought a place in Spain and set up a snail farm. You certainly need quite a few of them for each meal though.

  • Darren (author) said:

    Hi Michelle! I don’t think I could try cooking my own frogs’ legs – the poor little buggers are struggling enough as it is and certainly don’t need us picking them off too! Snails I don’t have any sympathy for :-).

    I found a free ebook online about how to farm snails. It had plans for a farm, all the info on how to breed them, what to feed them, how to process them and sell them, etc. It was written for an Australian audience, too. Very interesting.

  • rhonda jean said:

    Hi Darren, I don’t think it’s disgusting, I think it’s wonderful that you tried them and have decided to use the snails in a different way. At least you know. Like Em, I think people think it’s disgusting because they don’t understand food. They believe that what you pay for has value, other things don’t.

  • Darren (author) said:

    I agree totally Rhonda. This is becoming an interesting “litmus test” question. So far I’ve found that people who aren’t immediately disgusted usually have a more open-minded approach to food and I want to discuss it more with them. People who are immediately put off usually have a more mainstream philosophy of food, and we talk about something else.

    Neither of us is having a go at the other commenters who have said they couldn’t eat snails, though! I just mean if someone’s disgusted that I would even consider it, then we’re pretty likely to have very different interests in the whole food production issue.

    Personally, I find cage eggs disgusting (both the production process and the end product taste/appearance), but a lot of people who gag at the thought of eating snails will happily devour those. 🙂

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  • SimplyForties said:

    Very interesting! I’ve eaten escargot in France and loved it. It never occurred to me to eat the ones crawling about my backyard. Not sure I’m up for it although I don’t think it has anything to do with being removed from food production in general. When I ate the snails in France I wasn’t picturing them as snails, exactly. If I were the one pulling them off my plants and cooking them up, that would be a harder picture to blot out! I’m going to have to contemplate this a bit!

  • Darren (author) said:

    Hi and welcome, SimplyForties! Go on, give it a go. You’ll just have to find a neighbourhood kid to catch the snails for you – I think they could outrun you in your present condition! 🙂

    I hope your ankle is OK and you have a speedy recovery.

  • Kat said:

    I love your post. I am ready to gather my courage to try this. I love escargot, but have never had to look at them living before eating them. However, thanks to you, I may have to really look into trying. Now, I just have to properly id my snails!

  • Darren (author) said:

    Welcome Kat! I discovered your blog this morning via the carnival, subscribed but haven’t read much yet.

    Search Google Images or Flickr or something for “helix aspersa” to see what they look like. I found plenty of pictures, and IDing them was easy.

    Post photos etc when you give them a go and I’ll link to you. I’d love to hear what other people think – perhaps I can be convinced to have another go. 🙂

  • Sarhn said:

    What a very interesting post! I have to admit I always thought that the garden variety of snails were poisonous unlike the French eating variety.

    Thank you for the education.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Sarhn: Yeah, I didn’t know that either. Just make sure you check your own snails against photos on the web – they may not be the same as mine!

    I read on one web site that there were no known poisonous snails. Not sure if I trust that, though. I’d hate my one claim to fame to be having a new variety of snail named after me posthumously!

  • Duncan Dunderstone said:

    G’day Darren, & thanks for stopping by & leaving a heads up on snails at The Permaculture Institute Blog.

    http://permaculture.org.au/2009/02/02/interview-with-duncan-dunderstone/

    Have to say Daz, you’re a brave lad. Me and Bubba had a long chat one night about cultivating snails instead of woodlice, as they were bu**ers to catch. However, we were fearful they wouldn’t pass the Slime Factor Test (Macadamia nuts in the shell 0/10, oysters & jellyfish & uncooked fish roe or semen Slime Score 10/10). Bubba needed a six or below, I’d hit an eight if starving.

    What sort of a Slime Score would you give them mate?

    Duncan Dunderstone

  • Darren (author) said:

    Dunc! Glad to see you’re out and enjoying the fresh air again! Hope you got something out of the Square Foot Gardening book I sent you while you were, ah, out of town researching your latest book ;-).

    Funny enough, although raw snails are a bit like raw oysters (slime factor 10), cooked snails are more like calamari – somewhere around a 5. I don’t think they’d be much chop without the butter and garlic, though. Did you have much in the way of culinary herbs available to you?

  • Duncan Dunderstone said:

    Darren,

    Herbs were OK. The establishment was overflowing with them. Fresh when in season, dried if not. Problem with the dried herbs was, anything looking remotely ‘herby’ would get pinched and you’d find some dude trying to get high smoking it.

    Garlic a lot more difficult. However when we were on kitchen rotation we’d stuff a whole bulb in a sock, and smash the hell out of it with a rolling pin, then return the pulp to the dish we were meant to be cooking.

    Hey presto…garlic infused sock. Then if a dish we were doing at ‘home’ needed a bit of a lift, off with the sock, into the pot for a few minutes…..ta da! Culinary bliss.

    The Big Dunc.

  • Darren (author) said:

    Mmmm, sounds divine.

  • Jason said:

    This culinary endeavour reminds me of River Cottage with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (aka Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall). What a great program that is. So good on ya!

    At this stage I am eyeing a bush rat in my garden as a potential food source. It really likes to eat the female flowers on my spaghetti squash and zucchini. Thus no mature fruit. That said, I have tried some of the male flower and they are tasty and sweet, so I imagine that the female ones are fairly similar, thus irresistible to a rat with a sweet tooth.

  • Darren (author) said:

    Haha! Yeah, I can see Hugh eating snails. It’s a wonder he hasn’t already done it, given that he’s even done roadkill!

  • tunde adewunmi said:

    Oh snail, that is a very good meal. like everything else the preparation is the key. Crush the shell and take the gut out, put the snail in a freshly quized lemmon juice to remove the slippery stuff. then rinse in water, warm or cold. just like any meat or fish add spice such as garlic salt, curry powder or any seasoning, rubb it in good and deep fry for your taste. eat that with a beer, wine or champane. or combine tomatoe sauce and paste with spinnach and the snail in a pot, add a little coocking oil. cook to tender. serve on rice or any starch. you are in double heaven. I am hoping to start a small snail farm soon in my 3 acre property in hawaii since I am getting tired of my criminal justice job. will invite you all for a taste.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @tunde: I’d love to see some photos of your property, and a description of how you set up a snail farm. Sounds fascinating!

  • Kelly Hays said:

    Wonderful, thanks for the post, I enjoyed it. I agree, why is it ok to buy something but not raise it (or grow it, ferment it etc). That is a great idea to get rid of the grit, I will remember that one.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Kelly: Heh, weird eh? We’ll be moving onto an acreage shortly, so I’m intending to do a lot more raising, killing, growing, fermenting, etc!

  • Laure OT said:

    I’ve heard you can boil/re-boil a few times to reduce slime

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  • annie said:

    i tried snails in italy while visiting relatives ,they were the backyard garden variety.i asked how they prepared them.they fed them whole meal flour, husks and all for about a week to clean them out they didn’t look so brown after that.and they cooked them in pasta sauce of course!!what did i expect ?! although they did blanch them in hot water first to get rid of all the gooey slimy stuff.didn’t taste too bad.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Annie: Sounds yum! I think they’d go great on a pizza, too.

  • Brian said:

    I have thought about raising snails for personal eating a few times but living in Colorado there is just not enough natural humidity to make it work easily enough.

    From what I understand there are no land snails that are poisonous to ingest but sea snails are a different story (especially cone snails that emit a powerful neurotoxin to immobolize their prey). Even with land snails though you always need to ensure they are cooked well. Serving them raw or undercooked can result in severe illness due to parasites that the snails often harbor.

    Thanks for the great post!! Maybe I will finally break down and set up a large humidified tank in the house some day to keep my own supply close at hand!!

  • Kelly said:

    Hi Darren! I am a student at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. I was wondering if I could use one of your beautiful pictures for an internet research project. The photo would link back here to this blog and aid in the education of anyone that would like to learn more about snails.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Kelly: Sure, I have no problem with you using the photos for your project. Thanks for asking! Let me know if you can convince anyone to eat some snails :-).

  • Phil said:

    Come on guys and gals, out of the shell with just a little garlic is the way to go! Killing them first is optional 🙂

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Phil: Hmm, I think I’ll stick with cooking them first :-).

  • Duggie said:

    I remember growing up i swore i would never eat a snail but Darren, boy you actually do had me considering it. But then i thought about it a little, and don’t the snails still have there brains, eyes, and all their insides still inside of them? I find that a huge turn off. Did that not affect your thoughts on eating the snails?

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Duggie: You can clean the snails up a little before eating them, a bit like de-veining a prawn. I didn’t bother (and don’t bother doing it to prawns, either!). They have been purged, which cleans the gunk and grit out of their systems. If you did want to clean them, you would just cut off the hepatho-pancreas (“tortillon” in French, or “the curly bit on the end” in English), but it’s normally only done with the larger species of snail. It wasn’t a turn-off to me, but I also have no problem with things like offal that many people wouldn’t even consider. Snails are the ultimate “nose-to-tail” dining animal!

  • NZ Gourmet Snails said:

    Hey guys

    You first need to purge the snails for 5 days to clean their guts. place them on a oats diet or carrots for three days then two days without food. Also provide a small water bowl. Be careful not to be too deep, they will drown. Wash the container every day with water. Then your ready to go …………….

  • Darren (author) said:

    @NZ Gourmet Snails: Err, yeah, that’s pretty much what I said.

  • sega31098 said:

    If anyone wants to know how to numb the snails before cooking, Gordon Ramsay suggests to put them in the refrigerator (not freezer) so that the cold activates their hibernation mode. Then you turn the heat up really high until the water is at a vigorous boil and drop the snails in.