Snails for dinner! L’Escargot With Onion and Pinhead Oatmeal

by Ciaran Burke

Snails in galic butter served on fried pinhead oats and onion

Snails, slime trails and munched leaves, hosta holes and devoured delphiniums, the ever-present threat, the garden terrorists. Innocent plant species, fresh from the secure haven of the nursery are easy targets for these ruthless slimy beings.

How often have we gardeners gone to our gardens full of enthusiasm and optimism only to have our day ruined by the murder scene of slime tracks, the evidence of the crime orgy of leaf munching perpetrated by these garden thugs?  Newly planted vegetables raised with care , coaxed from from their embryonic slumber by our efforts, these babies of ours are destroyed while we sleep. Some of my lettuce plants were devoured by the nocturnal activity of snails. It was time for revenge, to fight fire with fire, an eye for an eye. I decided to eat those that ate my plants!

Snails and slugs are molluscs, a zoological family that includes sea animals such as squid and octopus. The common garden snail with the large brown swirling patterned shell is Helix aspera and in common with octopus and squid it is quite a delicacy in some European countries; l’escargot. The idea of eating snails seems to turn most Irish people green, but lets face it, it not any worse than eating oysters, at least you cook snails. Oysters enjoy a place of privilege in the culinary world, yet what could be more natural than eating snails from the garden; home grown food,  raised in an organic garden, zero carbon footprint and no food miles.

Snail farm otherwise known as "death row"

In May I decided to rear my first meat from our garden. Hanna and I went out to the garden in the evening and looking down amongst the leaves of herbaceous perennials such as Libertia grandiflora, Kniphofia, red hot pokers and under the foliage of wall trained climbers and lifting flat stones we gathered over the course of three evenings twenty one nice big specimens of garden snails.

Carefully they were gathered, the gardeners’ instinct to crush the enemy was subdued and with tenderness they were carried to their temporary residence of white and red; a recycled bucket which once held mayonnaise. Into its red lid numerous ventilation holes were made with a knife. Cleaned thoroughly two lids from jam jars provided the buffet for the new occupants. One carried cool clear water, the other, bran flakes. We had tried feeding snails on other cereals, oats, whole grain spelt flour, but wheat bran is their favourite.

Snails in bucket

When preparing snails for eating, they require about seven to ten days of feeding to clear out grit from their digestive systems followed by forty eight hours of water only. The purging period is essential in order to clear their digestive systems; you never know what else they have been eating. Throughout this period the bucket was kept in our shed, cool, dry and dark. After a few days I placed a good pinch of calcium carbonate, ground limestone, for the snails to eat. This helps prevent their shells from going soft and breaking.

Every evening the snails were removed for cleaning of the accommodation. Most of the snails were either eating from the food or hanging upside down on the inside of the lid. They were removed and placed in another bucket while I wiped out their excreta and washed the box. Some of the snails were sometimes a bit messy so they also got a quick wash. Luckily they are not fast movers and although some wake up they did not seem in a hurry to rush away, perhaps they were getting used to the convenience food and water supplies of their bucket home, little did they know that their plastic home was not a holiday village, but death row. Each day though they were treated with care, fed and supplied with clean water and their quarters cleaned and their welfare checked, it was no Guantanamo, their rights were respected. After their ten-day detention period including the 48 hours fasting had finished it was time for them to be cooked.

Snails in water with onion and herbs from the garden

I had help to prepare them for the table; Hanna’s brother Mika and his partner Heidi were visiting from Helsinki. Both are enthusiastic foodies and were keen to take part in our meal of vengeance.

Cooking garden snails

  1. Remove the snails from the bucket and wash each snail under cold running water
  2. Drop the snails into boiling water and remove after 5 minutes. Some froth is produced as mucus is released from the snails’ bodies.
  3. The snails are removed from their shells using small forks. This is easy to do; a quick flick of the wrist imparts the swirled flesh from the shell.
  4. The snails release a little green mucus, and may release more. To remove mucus the snail flesh is washed a number of times in diluted vinegar. Repeat until no more mucus is released.
  5. Next cook the snails in stock or with water with herbs, there are many variations of this, we used fresh herbs from the garden including oregano, lovage and parsley and added some chopped onion to the water seasoned with salt and ground black pepper.
  6. After 30 minutes the snails were removed and then fried in butter with garlic and parsley.

Mika and Ciaran with the snails

Snail meat

We served the snails on a bed of pinhead oatmeal sautéed with friend onion. The snails were judges to be a great success, both Mika and Heidi enjoyed them, and I did too. While in Ireland they had both dined in some really fine restaurants but Heidi reckoned that the culinary highlight of their trip to Ireland was the preparation and eating of the snails. They were very tasty, in fact, never has revenge for garden damage tasted so good.

Heidi enjoying our home grown l'escargot

Heidi writes a blog about cakes (in Finnish) LINK

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