Gardeners Revenge; Parts I and II

Part I; The Inspiration.

The first time I ordered them was easy. They were minced with herbs and packed with bread crumbs. The second time I ordered them was much more traumatic . They were whole and dark, just steamed with garlic and butter. They looked exactly like what they are, which made it difficult to spear them with a fork and pop them into my mouth. But, ever since, each time I lose a seedling or have an entire lily disappear in the garden, I quietly mutter “someday, Mr. Snail, I’m going to turn the tables and eat you”.

Like most Americans, eating snails, especially out of my own garden, isn’t a normal part of my diet. But the more I practiced my hands-on organic pest control by “discarding” masses of plump brown snails, the more I felt that I was wasting some of  the sustainable resources in my garden. I was actively removing something that is sought after in many other parts of the world. So I decided this was the year to do it. This was the year I was going to prepare and eat my garden snails.

snail under leaf

A typical hiding place for daytime

The only person to show any enthusiasm for my endeavor was my Godson Logan. In fact, he declared that he’d like me to prepare them in time for his high school graduation, because he had put eating snails on his “bucket list”.  Logan has been my weird-food buddy ever since we ate crickets together when he was five.   He will usually at least try whatever odd thing I cook up from the garden or bring back from my travels. I’ve  been able to count on Logan, other than a period of time when he temporarily lost his nerve due to an unfortunate incident involving his grandfather and some Limburger cheese.

Food buddy Godson

My Godson Logan gathers wild berries

So with an enthusiastic backer and a deadline I started doing my research. I already knew that our common garden snail, Helix aspersa, is eaten throughout much of France. This brownish land snail is technically a terrestrial gastropod native to Mediterranean Europe and North Africa, apparently brought here by an enterprising and hungry immigrant in the 19th century.

I actually started to get excited about the possibilities when I began searching for preparation techniques. I started to realize that there was no reason not to think about these little mollusks the same way I would consider clams or other shellfish. In fact, I’ve already spent many years eating, what could be considered the Grande Dame of Mollusks; the Abalone. Thanks to my life-long friend Brett, aka The Abalone King (and Logan’s father), I’ve been prepping, cooking and enjoying a football sized “snail” for much of my life. I’ve eaten fresh mussels pried off of rocks and oysters straight from the sea , so why not down-size and apply some of those flavors and techniques to the humble garden snail?

abalone

Abalone; a beautiful and delicious “snail”. Would it be any less appealing if you found it in the garden?

 

snail party

A handful of  tiny garden “abalone”

Part II; The Nitty Gritty Details

The First Step; So after talking myself into thinking of my garden snails as little flower-munching see-food, I took the first  step by bringing them into captivity from their hiding spots under leaves and on the shady sides of garden pots. It’s obviously extremely important to gather them from a place where no pesticides or other poisons have been used. I wouldn’t even gather them in a garden where artificial or pelletized fertilizer has recently been applied. You are what you eat.

Keeping Them;  You can’t eat them immediately, you need to have control of their last meal and be sure they are clean enough to cook both inside and out. That means they need to be kept in captivity for about a week. What to keep them in turned out to be trickier than I would have thought. I could go on and on about my failures in this area but the main thing is no cardboard or other paper products and be sure there is plenty of air. Also, the less you crowd them the better. I finally had success with a lid-less plastic container and a net bag. Trust me, a few holes poked into a plastic lid is not sufficient.

snails in captivity

Snails explore their temporary home

Feeding Them; I found advice for feeding them cornmeal, carrots, herbs and lettuce. I tried a combination of  all these and I would say that the advantage of cornmeal or carrots is simply that you can tell when they are excreting the food you gave them and have cleansed their system of their last random meal from the garden. It has the added advantage of not looking as disgusting too.

Final Days; Many sources talked about withholding all food and water, for the last several days, this purges the snails and sends them into a kind of hibernation state. In fact, some cultures primarily eat snails in the fall after they have naturally gone through this process and are settling in for the winter. I found that this had the added advantage of making them seem less active and therefore less personable, which was helpful.

snails waiting

Snails hang out on the net covering while they are fed in captivity

Cooking Them;  In most recipes snails are boiled initially. The amount of cooking time varied with different sources, from 15 minutes to 2 hours. In many cases, it wasn’t clear whether the cook was referring to canned snails or live ones.  I found that 30 minutes seemed to work pretty well.

Once they were cooked, the snails themselves really didn’t have a flavor, just a texture. They came out of their shells easily, at this point, using a sea-food fork or a toothpick. The shells, on the ones from my garden, were really quite delicate, so they could also just be “peeled” the way you would a shrimp.

snails in broth

Snails simmered with herbs

Some sources discuss cutting out the digestive tract but others insist that this is not necessary. Since this isn’t done with clams and I had just spent a week feeding them carrots, I decided to leave them intact.

The water could be flavored with garlic, herbs and salt. Stewed in this way, they are a common tavern snack in Spain and Portugal. Many sources recommended vinegar too, which I think was supposed to help cut the slime.

No Sneaking; I must say, at this point, that I think it’s very important to not “sneak” them into food. The primary reason is the danger of allergic reactions as well as the possibility of offending Vegans, Buddhists and other gentle souls. I never do this with nuts, wild mushrooms or any animal products and I don’t think anyone else should either.

snail cioppino

Garden snail cioppino stew

Final Preparation; I made a tomato-based sauce for the ones I left whole. This was inspired by Greek and Italian preparations. I thought the vibrancy of the tomato with a good edge of pepper made a nice complement to the texture of the snails. They were kind of like a terrestrial cioppino this way.

For another batch, I removed them from their shells, after they were boiled, then pan-fried them, in a variation on the classic French method. They were most “disguised” in this version and looked like little mushrooms if you squinted a lot.

snails with garlic and lemon

Pan-fried snails with rustic bread crumbs and lemon

If I try this again, I think Japanese inspired flavors would make a lot of sense. I can see wasabi and soy sauce being a good match for this terrestrial “sushi”. Also, the lime and cilantro of ceviche would probably compliment the texture, which was, after all, somewhat like a good calamari.

All in all, my experience taught me that I indeed have one more edible resource hiding in the shady nooks of my garden. Yes, I still have mixed feelings about going so literally from garden to table but any reluctance to dine on my own home-grown gastropods is definitely all in my head.

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Categories: Things to Eat

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