Escargot From Your Own Backyard

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Harvest snails in the early morning.
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Lure snails with some bran placed beneath a tipped- over flower pot.
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Once you have collected your snails, they will need a source of water.

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.

Check with your local wildlife or extension
agent first, because some tree snails are endangered and
the law prohibits collection of threatened species. If your
appetite for snails exceeds the supply in your garden, you
should have no trouble convincing neighbors to let you
round up theirs. Avoid areas where potentially toxic
substances have been sprayed. Don’t worry about snail bait,
though. Once a snail consumes bait, it won’t survive long
enough to be harvested.

Heliculture And Snail Housing

Once you’ve harvested your snails, you will need a place to
house them until they’re ready to be cooked up. The inner
portion of a bait pail makes a dandy snail farm, and so
does a plastic five-gallon, food-grade bucket with numerous
small holes drilled into it for ventilation. Because a
snail can lift five times its own weight, you’ll need a
tight-fitting lid to keep the little Samsons from
organizing an escape. Although one bucket can house up to
500 snails, housekeeping is easier if you gather only as
many as you need for one meal–allowing six per
serving (double if the snails are small).

Throw in a few
extra to compensate for normal losses. Between batches,
clean the bucket thoroughly. To avoid premature cooking,
keep your snails out of the sun. Suitable sites include
cool basements, airy garages, or any place where the
temperature falls between 55°F and 75°F. Because
you have no idea what your snails have been munching on
that could taste unpleasant to you (or be toxic), allow a
10-day cleansing period before your own feast. The French
disdain escargots fed with anything but grape leaves, but
snails do fine on plain lettuce. Some folks pre-season them
by feeding them herbs. Others plump up snails with cornmeal
or bran and high-protein soymeal.

Like any livestock,
snails need water. A saucer full is sufficient, if you fill
it frequently. Better yet is a narrow-mouth mayonnaise or
canning jar fitted with a vacuum-controlled base, of the
sort used to water baby chicks. The plastic base costs
about a dollar and can be found at most feed stores. For
pre-marinated mollusks, take a tip from the Romans and fill
the jar with wine instead of water.

Preparation And De-sliming

Three
days before feast day, withhold food but not water (or
wine) to let the snails finish digesting their last meal.
At the end of this fasting period, rinse snails thoroughly
in cool water and discard any that don’t peek out
of their shells. To deslime: Cover the snails with water
combined with two tablespoons of salt and one tablespoon of
vinegar per dozen snails. Soak the snails until they
release all their slime, which takes about four hours. To
speed things up, change the solution several times. Rinse
the snails well, cover them with water (some cooks add a
splash of lemon juice here), bring the water to a boil, and
simmer 10 minutes. Cool the snails and remove the meat from
the shells.

Garden snails often have thin shells that
shatter easily, making it difficult to follow the
traditional practice of returning them to their own shells
for baking. You can strengthen the shells during the 10-day
feeding period by supplying a calcium supplement, such as
crushed oyster shell of the sort fed to laying hens for the
same reason. Alternatively, discard the shells in favor of
reusable gros blanc shells, sold by import shops
as coquilles. Because coquilles are often larger
than the shells your snails came in, stuff each one with
two snails. (To save the coquilles for reuse, wash them in
soapy water. Cover them with fresh water to which a pinch
of baking soda has been added, bring the water to a boil,
rinse the shells, and drain them dry before storing.)

To
remove fragile shells from your garden snails, crush the
shells between your fingers and peel away the shards.
Extract the contents of sturdier shells with a nut pick or
seafood fork. As you remove each snail from its shell, peel
the skin from the meat and cut away the black portion at
the end of the tail. (If you have plenty of extras, freeze
them for later use, although they’ll suffer a slight loss
in texture.)

When you’re ready for final preparation, cover
the meat with water flavored with your favorite bouquet
garnis,
or add a bay leaf and a little parsley, thyme,
onion, garlic, and a few peppercorns. Slosh in some cognac
or substitute white wine for half of the water. Bring the
water just to a boil and simmer the snails for three to
four hours, depending on their size. While the meat cools
in the broth, prepare herb butter. Allow one cube of butter
(no margarine here, please) for each two dozen snails. With
each cube, cream two tablespoons chopped parsley, one table
spoon chopped chives, two crushed cloves of garlic,
one-quarter teaspoon salt, and freshly ground pepper to
taste.

Preparing Escargot

Some cooks find it convenient to both bake snails and serve
them in the same grooved platters, but it’s far more
elegant to heat them in a baking pan and transfer them to
clean, preheated platters. When you use a baking pan, pack
the snails closely so they won’t roll around, or line the
pan with crumpled foil shaped into a series of depressions
to hold each shell in place. Pour a spoonful of broth or
press a bit of herb butter into each shell, stuff in one
snail (two if they’re small), and pack the opening with
herb butter. Then the snails may be wrapped tightly and
stored in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
Preparing them ahead of time will give them a chance to
absorb extra herb flavor.

When you’re ready to serve them,
pop the baking pan into a 425°F oven for 10 minutes or
until the butter begins to bubble. Escargots are
traditionally served with specially shaped tongs to grasp
shells and narrow, close-tined forks. Fondue forks work
fine, too. Don’t use the fork to put the snail into your
mouth–that’s uncouth. Instead, place the snail on a
bit of French bread, pour broth and butter from the shell
onto the bread, and pop it into your mouth. If you don’t
care for all this protocol, don’t give up yet. Snails are
closely related to clams and oysters, and may be prepared
in many of the same ways.

You might, for example, remove
the cooled snails from their broth, pat them dry, and
sauté them in butter flavored with shallots, garlic,
and a dash of nutmeg. Or dip them in batter and deep fry.
For appetizers, fill sauteed mushroom caps with one or two
boiled snails, top with herb butter, and broil. Snails are
traditionally served as an appetizer or first course, but
they also make a terrific summery entrée served with
a fresh-picked garden salad tossed with oil and vinegar.
Add a loaf of crusty French bread and a bottle of white or
young red wine, and bon appetit!

A Word on Insect Cuisine
 

Believe it or not, insects are finding their way onto the
best American tables. To satisfy a growing demand for
information, in 1988 the University of Wisconsin began
publishing The Food Insects Newsletter. According
to entomologist and editor Gene DeFoliart, cultural bias is
the only thing stopping more Americans from enjoying insect
cuisine. He sees the outlook changing, though, due
in part to a need to meet the world’s burgeoning
food requirements and in part to an increasing concern
about the environment and the overuse of pesticides.
Collecting insects as food for humans is the ultimate form
of biological pest control, says DeFoliart, and an
enterprise that’s made to order for low-input, small farm
production.

Among his newsletter’s many subscribers are
organic gardeners seeking information on dealing with the
likes of grasshoppers, ants, and grubs. “You have created
an efficient grasshopper predator,” wrote one enthusiastic
subscriber after consuming her first meal of grasshoppers,
which she described as being creamy and mildly sweet. (If
you’re thinking of trying grasshoppers yourself, DeFoliart
suggests you avoid bright-colored ones.)

To date, the only guide (I know of) for preparing the
creepy, crawly things found in your yard is
Entertaining with Insects, the cookbook used by
the chefs who prepared last summer’s much acclaimed New
York Bug Banquet at the tony Explorer’s Club. The
collection includes such delights as Beetle Bars,
Honey Bee Soufflé, Insect Quiche, and
Cricket-on-the-Hearth Bread.

Here, from the book, is Patricia H. Howell’s winning entry
in a California Earthworm Recipe Contest:

Earthworm Patties

1 1/2 lbs. ground earthworms (Place live worms in flour for
24 hours to purify, boil for 10 minutes, then grind.)
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated
11/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons soda water
1 egg, beaten 1 cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup sour cream

Combine earthworms, melted butter, lemon rind, salt, and
pepper. Stir in soda water. Shape into patties and dip in
beaten egg, then in bread crumbs. Place in heated butter
and cook for 10 minutes, turning once. Place patties on hot
serving dish. Serve with heated sour cream on top.