Snail farming in Herefordshire
13:08 25 September 2009
Ever wonder where Heston Blumenthal gets the snails for his snail porridge? Andrea Mynard finds the answer in Credenhill.
Wild food is enjoying a resurgence in popularity but food found crawling slowly up the wall may not be everybody's idea of a gourmet treat. Yet we devour around 150 tonnes of snails a year in the UK, a fact that Tony Vaughan decided to capitalise on when he started snail farming in Herefordshire.
Aged 40 and looking to set up a new business after an army career, Tony happened to read an article in the Daily Telegraph on an English snail farmer and it set him thinking. Back in the 1980s with no internet to rely on, research was difficult but Tony painstakingly sifted through Ministry of Agriculture paperwork, got hold of French documents on snail farming and foreign office information on rearing snails in Africa. He went to delicatessens and restaurants in England, looked at how many snails they sold and when and decided that although we eat a tenth of the amount consumed in France there was a strong demand - and a shortage of quality snails available to chefs.
Tony found that the problem chefs had with snails was that the majority were eaten in our cooler months - hot snails in garlicky butter may be a tempting first course during the winter but in the summer, diners prefer cold starters. Yet the British winter is when snails are in hibernation so tinned or frozen snails were being used. A poor substitute, tinned snails are often chopped up giant African land snails, which grow to be a foot long and don't have the greatest flavour. So Tony aimed to farm snails (of the tasty Helix Aspersa Maxima variety) indoors or in small areas outdoors so that he could supply them fresh in the winter. He converted an old milking shed at Credenhill and says: "It took me 18 months to get it right, the key was giving them time and space." Careful nurturing was necessary if his snails were to reach the tender plumpness demanded by top restaurants. Getting the right amount of heat, light, food and water is vital and Tony gradually found a good balance. He designed his own trays 32 October to farm them in (these are now used worldwide in snail farming), worked out the optimum amount of snails to put in each container and studied their mating and feeding habits: "In the early days, we would be here at 2am looking at what they did, when they were active. I learnt what happened when we washed them - we use a hose and don't handle them any more than necessary as when they're younger they can cope but as they get older it stunts their growth."
When the snails mate, being hermaphrodite they can fertilise each other. Two to three weeks later they are provided with trays with soil in which to lay eggs (making collection easier). Tony collects the eggs and puts them onto other trays where they take 14 days to hatch. The baby snails are then transferred to other cat-litter type trays (200-250 in a tray) where they need careful nurturing for up to eight weeks before the largest are selected for large rearing trays for up to 10 weeks. Those that have grown particularly quickly are selected as potential breeders, while the others fast for a couple of days before retracting into their shells and going to sleep.
Tony quickly realised that most chefs don't know how to handle live snails, so he set up his own kitchen to prepare them. The snails are washed, then blanched for five minutes in boiling water with lots of salt and vinegar (the salt raises the temperature of the water and helps dislodge the mucus while the vinegar acts as a steriliser). After cooling down, the snails can either be chilled or frozen blanched, ready for further cooking. Having become a self-taught expert in snail rearing, Tony found his advice was much sought after world-wide. Not only has he run local courses on UK snail farming, Tony has advised DEFRA, and the Czech and Slovenian governments on heliciculture. But as Tony points out, it's a food we can all easily forage for in our own gardens rather than a foreign delicacy. "We think of snails as being something foreign, but we have actually eaten snails for years in this country, since prehistoric times. Prior to the Industrial Revolution we foraged for our food and knew what to find, whether it was mushrooms, rabbits or snails." Our long history of scoffing these gastropods is evident from snail recipes found by Tony in old recipe books dating back to the 1600s. An old recipe for snails in port and chives works well and is one of his popular ready-produced dishes, along with the classic Gallic recipe where snails are cooked with copious amounts of garlic and butter. Aptly, slow cooking works for this slow food - you need to simmer them as slowly as possible to avoid a tough texture.
Marco Pierre White cooks Tony's snails on a slow simmer before serving them with steak - an old English recipe. Tony's L'Escargot Anglais is now the
largest snail farm in the UK, supplying up to 8000 snails a week. An impressive client list includes restaurants such as La Gavroche, L'Escargot and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray. Heston cooks them in a water bath for six hours before serving them in snail porridge. Snails have been exported from Credenhill to Poland, the US and Czechoslavakia.
All proving that snails may be on the slow food trail but consumption is hardly sluggish. And with only one per cent fat, they're a gourmet treat that's a nutritious, lean source of protein too. Not bad for food that can, literally, be found on our doorstep.