Thursday 8 March 2012

Do Snails Have Teeth? . . . recipe: Port & Chive Snails

Interview with Tony Vaughan from L'Escargot Anglaise

Do snails have teeth?

This is Simon Fernandez, asking the tough questions for ferdiesfoodlab! ; ) I've been looking around for different ingredients recently, and I thought I might look into snails. Anyone that does any poking around, will quickly find out that a lot of restaurants in the UK, are supplied from a company based in Hereford, in the nearby village at Credenhill called L'Escargot Anglaise, run by a guy called Tony Vaughan, so I thought I'd go and check it out, pick his brains and maybe a snail or 2 out of their shells!

The main varieties that are farmed and eaten are the African snail - Achatina achatina, and the garden snail - Helix Aspera.

To give you a sense of scale this snail is centre frame next image (left side)

I'd not really thought about how snails start off life, very small, that they fire darts at each other, or how big they could get, or if they have teeth! So here's what I found out on my visit to Credenhil in Herefordshire.
The centre snail is about 4mm head to tail!

It's an unassuming complex, and when I arrived Tony showed me around the various sections, after a jolly good nosey we got down to a bit of a Q & A session. Here's what came up!

This one at the bottom is barely 2mm eyeball to tail

Q: What's involved in heliculture? (snail husbandry)
A: The same as with any other husbandry: get them together and get them at it!! Snails are hermaphrodite and can get preggers solo!! But as it turns out they prefer to mate with other snails, go figure! I can imagine that's rather more fun than firing a dart at a solid object and hoping it will ricochet off and hit you back!

Production process from start to end takes around 5 months, here's a bullet point overview:

Mating section: 16C-18C they lay 40-80 eggs each although often only one lays eggs. Mating is also effected by population density! So not too crammed please!

Incubation of eggs: When the eggs hatch they eat their shell as their first meal, 22C.

Initial growth room: Intensive feeding 18C-22C, the population density is a factor in growth and they soon need to be moved to bigger quarters . .

Secondary growth room: Ooh that's better - stretch - bit more space, faster growth.

Harvesting: Here they are only fed water for 2 days, to leave them clean!

The snails are then slightly blanched - this is the abattoir element of the process - it also makes them a lot easier to transport.

Q: I remember going snail "hunting" with my uncle  down by a local stream after the rain, we did quite well, is there a season for snails in their natural environment?
A: Mostly active between March and October. There are 4 main phases, pre-spawning, spawning, post_spawning and aestivation where they gather together and hibernate.

Q: I seem to remember my uncle sitting them in salt water to clean/discharge them. Is that the best way to do it or is there another / better way?
A: We feed them on a water only diet for 2 days before we harvest them.

Q: Are there any poisonous ones?
A: All land snails are edible. Sea snails, on the other hand, can be poisonous. Interestingly the venom of some cone (sea) snails such as Conus magus (Magical Cone) is being trialed for use as a pain killer 1000 times stronger than morphine but without it's addictive qualities.

Q: What size are the snails?
A: Helix aspera: shell around 4cm x 3cm with an 8cm foot. Achatina achatina (giant African land snail):  shell 18cm long x 9cm wide, have been found as large as 30cm x 15cm - that's the size of my fore arm - that's pretty big. That's when you worry about their teeth, right?

Q: Easiest way to eat them? Are there any special implements?
A: Use a snail fork and snail tongs. (or a toothpick and fingers if you're at a picnic!!)

Q: I read that your snails are the same as French snails except they're english do you have more than one strain / species?
A: We farm Helix Aspera for the most part, and Helix Pomatia also.

Q: Is there such a thing as a thoroughbred snail?
This question brought a wry smile.
A: If you're racing them, yes! (Definitely yanking my chain here.) We used to sell them years ago for exactly that purpose until the restaurant business took off!

Nope no sign of teeth or fangs on the underside!

Q: Can you eat the giant snails?
A: Yes, you can, in fact, they're the only other species that are commercially farmed.

Q: Do you breed them?
A: No.

Q: So th ones you do breed, how much they eat, what do they eat, what do you feed them?
A: We feed them chalk and pig feed.

Q: What forms do you supply them in - tins, bags, frozen, live?
A: Blanched in bags, and pre-cooked in garlic in bags too.

Q: How much do they cost?
A: The ones in shells and garlic £15.10 for 50
     No shell, blanched £15.10 for 100

Q: Who are you main customers?
A: Restauranteurs, he reels off a pretty impressive list, including the Fat Duck and the Ledbury and quite a few others.

Q: How are they transported?
A: Refrigerated in plastic bags.

Q: Do you eat them often?
A: He pulls a face and says, "I probably try them once a day, testing a batch as it goes through, but not generally, no."

Q: You have any recommended recipes?
A: Tony pulls down a spec sheet from the wall and says, "Here, you can have this one, we don't use it any more, the orders were too sketchy, you're welcome……", quickly covering the TOP SECRET garlic recipe with a piece of paper as I take a snap of the recipe with my phone.

Recipe - L'Escargot Anglaise
Epicure: Port and Chives recipe

100 snails
228g port
16g chives
60g anchovy paste
60g garlic
228g tomato puree
4g black pepper
2 1/2 packs butter (625g? really? that much?)
salt to taste

Tony says: Slow poach or bake in the oven! Bon appetite!

I have to put my hands up. Although I did go away with a bag of snails to try out, our freezer failed a couple of days later and they were unfortunately lost!! So I've not tried this recipe out!

All the same thanks to Tony for his time!

Culprit, hotfooting it from the scene! (legging it seemed inappropriate) Clearly visible bite marks! I'm submitting this as evidence your honour!

For the question, "Do snails have teeth?" I had to go a little farther afield. The answer was provided by a lovely marine biologist Jemma Ludley from whom I got the following info "Snails are Gastropods. These have a radula which is basically a structure of numerous teeth that 'rasps' objects......if that makes sense?"

So what I'm hearing is they have one big serrated tooth, but the answer definitely contains teeth, that's a bit fat yes for me, so I'm off to buy my new pet snail, Hilary a toothbrush! Just needs to grow arms now!

Sunshine, leaves and not pots . . . and a toothbrush, happy days!

How is one supposed to know to look for Radula!!? Great page here on Wikipedia.

Great Snail Farming Manual - This has to be one of the best resources out there, with a lot of information on global practices and breeds and a wealth of links!

PDF on African Snail Farming
Apparently you can get them in London here:

View Larger Map

and Brixton market!

How to cook African land snails here by Tim Hayward in Hard as Snails. Drawing, it has to be said, quite a lot of fire in the comments! Too much in my opinion, although there was one comment about human overpopulation that seemed to ring true. That said, I don't think I'll be putting them on the menu!

Another supplier of Escargot here!

If you want to forage for your own snails the best time is just after it's rained when they're all out and about, place them in salt water to clean them, then roast in garlic, parley and butter!! Job done!

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