Catch it, Kill it, Cook it - Garden Snail Edition
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; when it gives you rain... get cracking on some garlic butter because the snails are coming! I've eaten snails on holiday, in local restaurants, even sampled Lidl's frozen variety, but never quite got around to taking matters into my own hands. Until now. An almost infinite supply of tasty nourishment, just crawling around outside. Welcome to 'Catch it, Kill it, Cook it - Garden Snail Edition'.
During a break in the July Bristol clouds comprehensive air-strike, I get to work abducting the slimy critters off of walls and out of shrubs. I use an empty egg carton as a temporary snail-transportation unit, before arriving home with a healthy catch of the little buggers. Into a large plastic bucket they go, and I stick in a carrot, stretch over a cheesecloth, and on goes plenty of string to secure their woolly roof. Easy.
After two days, I untie the string and peek inside. It instantly becomes apparent that I may have made two mistakes. Firstly, a day earlier may have been a better time to check them, and secondly, I shouldn't have used a plastic container. It's not just the desperation in their attempted exodus (which has resulted in a snail shaped hole in the cloth, and a couple of guilty looking creatures crawling around the surrounding area).
Lesson learned, I give the survivors and non escapees a good wash, and re-home them in a nice wooden box.
I see that the carrot has taken a bit of a battering, and I already feel like my reputation for snail-care is diminishing by the day, so I treat them to a fresh one with a side order of little-gem. I swap the flimsy cheesecloth for a flimsy tea-towel, and cover them up again.
After another two days it's time to inspect the droppings and check the colour. They should be orange, and indeed they are. Carrot has replaced weeds and acid rain as their central diet. My appetite isn't exactly raging though; shells coated in faeces, milky tentacles jutting into strange orifices, and slime crusts on underbellies are not things that should be soundtracked by Groove Armada and filmed in slow motion.
This is isn't just any milky tentacle jutting into an orifice...
After a blast with the hose they soon look cleaner and curiously sprightlier. I have to play the bad guy again, though, and remove the veg in the hope of clearing their bellies of all but air; apparently snails pre-stuffed with salad does not a delicacy make. Back they go into the shed for two more days.
A package arrives in the post. It's my order of two cans of Burgundian snails. It's not so much the meat I'm after, but the large, empty, snail chassis that accompany the cans. It’s time for my snails to relocate for the good of an aesthetically pleasing and uniformly presented dish.
Once there are hardly any droppings in the box (indicating empty bellies all round - including mine) its time to fire up the hob and start the main show. I place the snails in the fridge in order to slow their pulses and drop their eyelids. After half an hour of chilling, their antennae have retreaded and their feet are struggling for purchase. I place the now unconscious molluscs into boiling water for a swift death. Five minutes in, they are in snail heaven.
I give them another rinse to clear out any grit, and also to try and remove the green stuff that is making me uneasy. Note to the reader- don't bother trying to remove the green stuff; it's not gunk, it's as permanent as a tattoo. They pop out of the shells with ease as I toothpick my way through them, and I give them another shower because I'm in a squeamish mood.
Execution taken care of, the actual cooking begins. I refill the pan with fresh water, onion, carrot, garlic, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Once hot, I drop in my new best friends and let them simmer (not boil!) away for a couple of hours until tender. Their complexion improves with cooking. Gone are the white appendages, green patches and translucent scum.
A few hours of Netflix later I return. The snails feel soft, but the chef in me persuades me to snaffle one right away, and yes, they are tender but not particularly flavoursome. It's time to cool them off, and watch another episode of something.
Out come the shop bought shells and butter (butter, garlic and parsley to the ignorant among you), and in I stuff my recently deceased pets. The shells are rather large, and let's just say that my snails are punching above their weight when it comes to accommodation. Garlic butter is spooned on top and smoothed over, and they are starting to look fairly legit.
The final stage is to heat them up in the oven in order to melt the butter and warm the snails, and this is where the magic happens. Once popped into the mouth, I consider the experiment successful; the texture is that of a perfectly steamed mussel, the earthy flavour is enhanced by the butter. We have English Escargot!
After all this work, is it worth it? Yes and No. No, in the sense that no first course should require over a week's work, but a resounding yes, in the sense that I have turned the humble garden snail - scourge of gardeners - into something that wouldn't be out of place in a decent French bistro. Would I do it again? Yes, just not every week.