Escargots have long been a French delicacy but now it seems the British are developing a taste for the common garden snail.
Their rise in popularity can partly be attributed to snail farmer Helen Howard, who started her business eight years ago from a spare bedroom and has just been appointed “snail sommelier” by Cafe Rouge.
The former biology teacher now produces around 50,000 a year for the restaurant trade and even sells them to zoos for reptile food.
Up close and personal with our slimy friend
These days Helen’s “farm” has moved from the spare bedroom of her home in Littlebourne to a couple of sheds in her garden and even the village allotment.
She said: “I think other allotment holders were a bit alarmed I was deliberately introducing snails to feed on my vegetables so I had to reassure them they wouldn’t escape.”
Helen originally started the business with her daughter Rachel after she left agricultural college.
She said: “We were looking for a commercial opportunity but didn’t have any land. Then I read about snail farming and it seemed like something worth trying.
“Rachel later moved away but I decided to continue the business and it has just grown from there.”
Snail pie anyone? Ragout d’escargots at Cafe Rouge
Helen admits that although more adventurous with cuisine, many Brits are still reluctant to eat what they consider is simply a slimey-looking garden pest.
But she insists it is no different from eating shellfish like cockles, whelks and oysters.
Helen rears two types of snail – Helix aspersa muller and Helix aspersa maximus – the most obvious difference being their size.
“They actually beat seafood in terms of nutrition” – Helen Howard
She said: “They actually beat seafood in terms of nutrition and are packed with protein, vitamins and minerals but very low in fat and carbohydrates.”
But she says it is crucial to prepare them thoroughly and cook snails slowly to get the best flavour and texture.
She said: “Like a lot of foods, it’s easy to be put off if you eat things that have not been prepared the right way.”
Baby snails destined for the dinner table
Helen breeds snails and nurtures them from babies to adults which takes six months.
She also provides smallholder snail starter kits to others wanting to create their own domestic little farms for their own consumption, gives talks in schools and has even written a book called Molluscs and Me.
She said: “Farming snails is actually quite a labour intensive business because they need a fair bit of attention. You can’t just leave them to their own devices.”
As the country’s first-ever snail sommelier, Helen is tasked with promoting snails as a delicacy to be eaten.
Helen Howard examines her snails
Now Cafe Rouge in Canterbury has developed two special dishes for its new menu, a taster pot of snails with garlic butter and ragout d’escargots – snails and mushrooms in a rich sauce with truffle oil and a pastry top.
Helen said: “It’s great to see snails on the Cafe Rouge menu in such an appealing way. Ragout d’escargots is an exciting way to present snails and showcase their texture and flavour.
“I really hope more Brits will give them a try because they are a fantastic and delicious food with some serious superfood credentials.”
- For more information about Helen’s snails visit http://www.hrh-escargots.co.uk.