Snails: the food of the future?

The Staff Canteen
Snails don’t sound like the raciest thing in the world but they are undergoing a kind of renaissance in the UK which has seen them flying off snail farms faster than supply can keep up. It is estimated that snail production in the UK has risen from around 30,000 snails per year in 2000 to more than 750,000 this year. The media spotlight is also firmly on the modest molluscs with everyone from The Independent to The Sun and TV's Countryfile and Food Unwrapped programmes featuring snail farms. Snails are packed full of protein, omega 3s and minerals and don’t store fat.They used to be a staple part of the British diet, especially at this time of year during Lent. They were known as ‘wall fish’ and classified as seafood meaning they could be eaten during times of fasting like Lent and on Fridays. When cooked correctly they are a million miles away from the rubbery chewy things that have the British gagging into their napkins; they have an earthy mushroomy taste that is redolent of woodlands and forest floors. Given all this it might be better to ask not why snails are suddenly becoming so popular, but why it has taken so long.

Free range snails

H & RH Escargots is a snail farm in Kent which has had everyone from The Independent newspaper to BBC1’s Countryfile paying them a visit. It produces 50,000 snails a year and has recently started its own snail farming course to meet the demand for training in the subject. Joint owner of of H & RH Escargots, Helen Howard, thinks it is part of the desire for home-grown, provenance-assured food that is driving demand. She started her snail farm from very modest beginnings seven-and-a-half years ago. Her daughter had just gone to agricultural college so Helen began to look around for agri-activities that were relatively simple and didn’t require a great deal of land. She started breeding snails in her spare room but soon moved to an outdoor free range operation. She now has a quarter of an acre of land including a fruit farm and temperature-controlled Nissen hut. Helen, along with her daughter and joint-owner, Rachel, grows Helix Aspersa Maxima, the hardier, larger and faster growing farmed version of the common garden snail. Their USP is that they sell their snails live, cooling them down first to put them into hibernation before packing them off in the post, a method that isn’t totally without its challenges. “Once they warm up, they start wandering about and thinking ‘how do I get out of here?’” says Helen. “When I started out I didn’t take into account that snails like eating cardboard and paper and an early batch arrived at a chef with the invoice and cooking instructions eaten.” Now she uses plastic mesh bags and strawberry punnets and the lady from the post office doesn’t mind as long as she can’t hear them moving. It was one of Helen’s live snail postal dispatches that started Aylesbury Escargots out on the long road to snail farming. Sophie Wharton of the fledgling husband-and-wife company had always felt a connection to snails as a child and they had caught her eye again recently when looking at polytunnels to expand into the micro herb market. Instead she had her head turned by the snails in a neighbouring polytunnel and had soon gone to visit Helen’s farm in Kent to find out more about farming them. “Helen sent us some snails through the post,” says Sophie and when they arrived they were awake and had eaten all these holes in the box. There was all these little heads popping out looking at me; there was no way I could have eaten them.”

Darts and classic FM: getting snails in the mood for love

Instead she kept them in her front room until, without her knowing, they started breeding. Soon snails were filling their conservatory, then their shed, and soon the barn had to be converted. Four years down the line they now have a breeding polytunnel, a purging barn, a commercial kitchen and a 1,000 square metre outdoor enclosure which they recently expanded to triple production to keep up with demand. This includes a whole field of rapeseed that the 400,000 snails munch their way through each year. Aylesbury Escargots specialise in snail caviar – snails eggs – which they sell to several top restaurants. Their Helix Aspersa Maxima snails are free range and, according to their website “always passionate”. The problem of getting snails ‘in the mood’ to breed constantly is apparently one of the main challenges to snail farming but it’s one that Sophie believes they have solved by a number of unique measures. “They like carrots,” she says. “They’ll do pretty much anything for a carrot.” The snails are also turned on by music (especially Classic FM) and soft lighting. And the combination of all three has more than the desired effect, according to Sophie: “We’ve got 4,000 breeder snails who are all at it,” she says. “The polytunnel is a tunnel of love at the moment.” Snails are hermaphrodites. When you consider that having sex, for them, involves shooting calcium darts at each other which pierce the body of the other snail and are attached to a curly cord that doesn’t allow them to escape, you can see why it might take a special occasion to get them in the mood. “They have a look at each other and put their hands out and touch each other,” says Sophie, “but then they get nervous and back away because they know one of them’s going to get shot.”

Modern molluscs: the scientific approach

Dorset Snails, based in Witchampton near Bournemouth, have eschewed the outdoor method and grow their snails indoors all year round. They have concentrated on a series of technical innovations and breeding choices that have seen them race to the forefront of snail productivity in the UK. According to director, David Walker, Dorset Snails is selling 10-12,000 snails a week. It took on nine new customers three weeks ago alone (its best week ever) and is looking to increase to a million snails a year next year. It too has been inundated with press including Channel 4’s Food Unwrapped. Dorset Snails is another family team run by husband and wife David and Jennie Walker and their son Tony. They started in 2006 after seeing a snail farm in Devon on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word. Having previously farmed worms for fishing tackle, they decided to go down to the farm for a day’s course and went on to set up their own small-scale farm. From day one they took a very technical approach to snail farming. “It took us two years,” says David, “of experimenting with foods, life cycles, humidity and so on. If you don’t get all those things right, you don’t get the breeding right, the hatching right or the growth of the snails right. We treated it like a scientific experiment really.” This rigorous approach seems to have paid dividends. Dorset Snails has developed a secret, mechanised labour-saving device which they estimate has cut down 90% of the manual labour involved in farming their snails. They are also one of the only farms to produce Helix Aspersa Muller, the common garden snail, a breed which David insists are the best tasting. For David, snails are the restaurant food of the future. “We don’t tap into an existing market,” he says. “When we sell snails to chefs, we’re creating new markets and it’s growing all the time. We’ve never had a period of growth like this and I think it’s going to get better next year and the year after.” Snails, it seems, are rapidly re-establishing themselves as a staple British food. In fact Aylesbury Escargots have just signed a contract to provide oven-ready snails to a major UK supermarket, which means the molluscs might soon be gracing everyone's kitchen cupboards, not just professional chefs'. “They’re part of our cultural heritage,” says Helen Howard. “It should be part of our everyday cuisine. Wouldn’t it be nice if people had a snail pen next to their chicken pen and didn’t feed the snails to the chickens, but ate them themselves?”  Aylesbury Escargots' recipe for Escargot Pearls with Beetroot and Apple Salad H&RH Escargots recipe for Kentish Plaice & Snails with Capers, Wild Garlic & Pickled Onions Rings  
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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st March 2014

Snails: the food of the future?