How to catch, clean and cook garden snails

Food & drink, Food politics
How to cook garden snails

The first thing to say about my very small attempt to farm garden snails for culinary purposes is that its been controversial.

“It’s worse than the live crabs in the sink incident“, Jenny said, “but not as bad as the pig’s head in the fridge.” Personally, I think it’s far worse than the pig head incident…I didn’t have to kill the pig, after all.

This little experiment seemed to catch the imagination, provoking reactions ranging from horror to intrigue, long facebook conversations about the ethics of eating things like snails, and the formation of an official pressure group, the Snail Liberation Front, bent on saving said snails from the pot.

Like many other pressure groups, it failed, but it did produce some hastily-pushed-through-our-door posters with remarkably good drawings of snails and the epic strap line “only Tories eat snails”, which I must admit made me pause for a moment and consider releasing my prey.

So, these snails…

All snails in Britain are edible. They’re essentially the same creatures that the French , Spanish and Italians devour by the tonne. The small, colourful ones aren’t worth the bother, and Roman snail, predominant in the South and South West are protected, so that leaves helix aspersa, the common garden snail.

It’s not as large as the farmed French varieties, but it’s a reasonable size for eating, and extremely plentiful, as anybody with an allotment will know.

If you set aside the emotion of it all, it makes perfect sense to eat snails. Why kill them with poison or the sharp edge of a spade when you can use them properly, for food?

It’s a far more ethical and sustainable approach.

It make s perfect, logical sense, but there’s a cultural angle to the whole act of eating a snail that simply revolts many British people, which is a shame, because snails are very good to eat indeed.

The French know this already, of course.

How to catch, cook and eat garden snails

The best time to catch snails is after a downpour. At this time of year, the conditions are perfect – the humidity and dampness draws the little blighters out from under their rocks and out of their cracks and into the open at dusk. A quick shower, a mild evening, a bucket and a strong torch are all you’ll need for a bountiful hunt.

Snails need to be prepared quite thoroughly before they’re ready to cook. You don’t know where they’ve been and what they’ve been eating, so you need to change that by controlling their diet for a few days.

Put the snails into a container of some sort – a wicker basket of some sort, or something equally breathable is ideal – along with a carrot, and cover the container with something suitably heavy and snail proof. A roofing slate or something like that would be ideal. Put the container somewhere shady, out of the sun.

The next day, rinse the snails and the container with cold water to clean away any…droppings. Replace the carrot and cover again. Repeat this cleaning process for at least four days, by which time, the diet of carrot should be very evident from the colour of the snail’s waste product…it should be orange.

At this stage, you can be confident that you know what’s in the snail’s stomachs, but you don’t want to eat that.

Time to get it out.

Remove the carrot, but continue the daily rinsing routine. Do this for a further three or four days, to purge the snails of all waste products and to make sure that they’re very clean.

Just before you start to cook them, give the snails a final bath in plenty of water in a bucket, to make sure that all grit is removed from their shells.

Put the cleaned snails into a bowl, cover with a plate and place in the fridge for half an hour – the cold forces the snails to retract into their shells and puts them into a deep sleep.

Cooking is easy. Make a court bouillon, a simple vegetable stock flavoured with herbs, carrot, celery, onion and whatever else you’ve got in the fridge, and bring it to a rolling boil. The snails simply go straight into the pot. The heat kills them straight away, in the same way it does a mussel.

Cook for about fifteen minutes, making sure that the stock stays at just under boiling point.

Fish the cooked snails out with a slotted spoon and let them cool for a while before using a pin or a pair of tweezers to drag the flesh out of the shells. It will come out quite easily once you get hold of it.

The traditional French way of preparing snails is to stuff the snail back into its shell with a drop of stock and a lot of garlic butter, roasting in the oven for about ten minutes, but I served mine on toast, with crisp bacon, tomato and sage.

Sage goes well with snails – both have an earthy taste…

Does the thought of eating garden snails repulse you, or is it something that you’d dare to try?

How to catch, cook and eat garden snails

10 comments… add one

  • Rachael Jul 14, 2012

    I agree, it’s a far more ethical and sustainable approach to garden pest management, as well as a perfectly acceptable food source…however I must admit the idea of catching and killing my own is just one gastropod too far for me, strange considering I have no problem with the more conventional game available to the countryside dweller!

  • michelle Jul 15, 2012

    awesome post! definitely more ethical than killing and not using them for anything. I feel like I would develop an attachment to them through cleaning their systems for those days, but then again, they are snails!

  • Judy Jul 15, 2012

    Only a non-gardener can be this soppy about snails and slugs. I cannot think of anything worse than waste my time cleaning, let alone eating these most disgusting and much disliked creatures. What I need to know is a method of getting rid of them for ever!!!!

    • rich Jul 16, 2012

      Non-gardener? You presume too much. Where do you think those snails came from? ;-)

  • ellenbcookery Jul 16, 2012

    This is so amazing! My mother-in-law is full of snails in her garden in Belgium! They are so good cooked in garlic butter…YUM!

  • Sarah Jul 16, 2012

    This is really interesting, but nope, I couldn’t face eating them. I’ve seen my slug trap full and the thought of eating them is unpleasant. To my mind they are best chucked over the garden wall, or left for the birds to eat!

  • Peggy Jul 17, 2012

    Personally, I don’t think it’s unethical at all – circle of life, really. Just like anything else. But catching them and going through the process? Not really a big fan of that part lol

  • Olsta Jul 19, 2012

    Judy, what is ‘disgusting’ about snails exactly? The fact that they eat your plants? Or is it because they’re slimey? Makes you sound like a pathetic child. It’s ironic when people terms like that to describe certain animals when humans are the most vile, destructive and disgusting species to ever exist.

    Anyway, I’m a gardener and I have no problem with snails or slugs. Yes, they can be annoying, but they are also an essential part of the food chain. I also have no problem with eating them – plenty of other animals do.

  • I admire your stance – I think it’s a great way to make the most of the natural things around us. We walked back from the train station the other night after it’d been raining and they were everywhere, it was like playing hopscotch! We were jumping down the street trying to avoid “the crunch”. I just can’t fancy them myself – I’m not an avid mussel fan either, there’s something about the texture I can’t handle. Good job getting your kids to eat them though!

  • Flossie May 4, 2013

    I retired to France a few years ago. My friends make nettle soup, cook locally hunted deer and wild boar, and locally caught frogs’ legs, but don’t grow their own snails, although we have a snail farm nearby. Plenty of large snails in our garden and the village’s forest so I may have a go. I had been led to believe that you had to cook snails several times and skim off horrible deposits, but this sounds much easier than I have been led to believe.

    Other local recipes include vin de noix (using whole walnuts including outer fruit) which tastes rather like a cream sherry, merisier (made from cherry tree leaves) and various dishes involving sorrel and cow parsley which are absolutely delicious. Family here and in UK have adopted the local custom of immersing surplus fruit in alcohol (sold as “bottling alcohol” here but cheap vodka works just as well) which I can highly recommend. Strawberries retain texture, colour and flavour literally for years, although the favourite is morello cherries, eaten after a meal with local moonshine made from plums.

    Sadly most recipes in our part of France involve cheese and alcohol which suits us completely but may not appeal to all.

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