Escargot From Your Own Backyard

Your backyard is full of tasty snails just waiting to be eaten. Here's how to collect them, house them and prepare them for dinner.

| June/July 1993

After years of battling snails in my garden while cooking up escargots purchased at a premium from a local import shop, I finally got wise. As long as I was gathering garden snails, why not harvest them for dinner? One bite told me I was onto something: those fresh snails from my garden, though smaller, tasted far superior to the pricey escargots from cans. 

This revelation came to me back in the days when most folks didn't want to know that snails and escargots are one and the same. When I served garden snails to my friends, their invariable reaction was "yuk!" But when those same friends thought they were eating escargots from France, I got rave reviews. Since then, our American appetite for continental cuisine has created an ever-growing market for escargots. At the same time, ecological awareness encourages creative approaches to ridding our yards and gardens of plant predators. What could be more creative than turning the tables on garden pests while, quite literally, putting meat on the table at virtually no expense? Those creatures once considered a garden plague are now being avidly sought for their slightly chewy texture and subtle, earthy flavor.

Species of Backyard Snails

The common garden snail, Helix aspersa, is a close relative of France's commercially harvested Helix pomatia. Both can be found on French dinner plates, where the former goes by the affectionate "petit gris" (little gray) to distinguish it from its cousin gros blanc (large white). No one can say for certain how the French mollusk managed to cross the ocean into North America. Some folks claim that a mid-1800s French immigrant, craving this epicurean delight, imported snails and turned them loose to proliferate in a central California orchard. Others believe Helix came as a stowaway in grapevine cuttings brought by the Spanish missionaries who established the now famous California vineyards.

Whatever the case, Helix now ravages orchards and gardens throughout Western and Southern coastal areas. While it is the best known of the edible snails, plenty of others are suitable for harvesting. Second in gourmet popularity is Cepaea, which ranges from the maritime provides of Canada to as far south as Tennessee. Known as the grove or garden snail, Cepaea can be identified by its prettily banded shell. Although few snails rival the flavors of Helix and Cepaea, any land snail large enough and abundant enough to gather is a potential candidate for the table.

How to Lure Snails

French cooks believe snails gathered in the fall are tastiest, but gardeners who collect them in spring (when snail damage is greatest) find little difference in flavor. Because snails are basically nocturnal, the most productive harvesting times are nightfall and early morning, when the yard is still damp with dew. Snails will also crawl out of their hiding places after a light rain or after the garden has been watered.

To harvest many snails at once, lure them to a gathering spot by taking advantage of their passion for bran. Leave a handful under an overturned, propped-up flower pot and the critters will come flocking. After they've gorged on bran, they'll attach themselves to the inside of the pot and you can peel them off by the handful. If snails are munching on your fruit trees, band the trees with strips of copper. The snails won't crawl over the bands, but will congregate at the base of each tree for easy picking.

8/6/2017 11:54:38 AM

I have been raising escargotss for years, my snails just ADORE oranges after being juiced and cantaloupe rinds. I can feed zillions with these and have fine tasting snails. I put a copper wire on the edge of the container -- they are unable to cross the copper. I live in the tropics and they do very well even in 25ºC weather.

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