It’s the first of many surprises in heliculture (snail farming, to you and me), and David Walker – a snail farmer who’s done business with the above household names – is about to reel off a few more revelations. ‘The French only produce around ten percent of the snails they consume,’ he says, ‘and almost every snail France produces goes into tins.’
Understandably, there’s a lot of tweaking and maintaining involved. Even the snails’ waistlines are under tight surveillance, and it’s a bit like Weight Watchers, but in reverse. ‘We grow them from eggs to about ten grams, then we feed them lots of herbs, where they grow up to twelve or fourteen grams. That’s the size we harvest at. Trouble is, they don’t all grow at the same rate.’
The gastropods in question are of the Helix aspersa Müller variety which, as everyone knows (didn’t you?), is second only to the Burgundy snail in having the tastiest meat. The Burgundy, also known as the ‘land lobster’ due to its red-orange tinge, is a protected pecies however, so don’t even think about eating it. Besides, as David says, it’s far too big for the UK market anyway. ‘A lot of people are virgin snail eaters, so they don’t want a whacking great lump of meat, let alone be expected to cut into it.’
Though these guys aren’t massive, it takes up to twenty weeks for a snail to reach full size, where they’re fed a mixture of high protein soya, pig meal and fine chalk to help develop their shells. Then, for their last few weeks, they’re given an amalgam of dried herbs – parsley, oregano, and the like – before being chilled and, effectively, cured for a few weeks before they’re cooked on a low heat for two and a half hours. ‘They’re deep in hibernation at this point. We never cook a snail that’s crawling around – to us that seems a little on the cruel side.’
You see, one of the first things David mentions is the inferiority of tinned snails, and it’s an inferiority that too many people experience, whether they realise it or not. ‘I was talking to a guy this morning. He tried snails, but would never have them again –he thought they were too chewy. That’s typical of a tinned snail. One chef described it as a sort of snail chewing gum, because you swallow once you get fed up with chewing in the end.’
As you might’ve guessed, David’s snails aren’t tinned. His family’s farm, in east Dorset, only rears the fresh stuff. Because of the typical British climate, and because snails love humid conditions (just take a look in your garden on a warm morning after a night of rain), everything’s done indoors.
‘The UK climate isn’t suitable for growing snails outdoors,’ says David. ‘So we’ve put polytunnels inside a chicken shed and we put loads of insulation over the polytunnel, so no daylight gets in at all. For best results, we need twelve hours with lights on, twelve with them off.