Follow the snail trail: Les escargots are slithering on to British menus

We’ve long been content to leave les escargots to the French. But now the molluscs – and their edible eggs –are gaining popularity in British restaurants.

Their critics claim the only nice thing about snails is the parsley and garlic butter they're doused in, the rest being rubber. Gardeners who this summer have seen their gardens decimated by munching molluscs may also have trouble stomaching them – except perhaps as some sort of gruesome gastronomic revenge. We Brits have tended to be a bit squeamish about snails, preferring to leave them, along with frogs' legs, to the French.

Stretch back through history, though, and you discover that the Romans were breeding snails in Britain in snaileries, fattening them on wine and bran, then devouring them with relish. Pliny apparently liked nothing more than grilled snails as a pre-prandial snack. In medieval Britain snails were devoured on meat-free Fridays as the Catholic Church considered them "wall fish".

Today, it seems, we're befriending the snail again. Farms are producing them commercially to satisfy demand from a growing number of British chefs. Leading the way was Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, whose snail porridge has become a classic. Others now serving them include David Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage, Alan Murchison at L'Ortolan, and Phil Fanning at Paris House. At the BridgeHouse Hotel in Beaminster Steve Pielesz has become famous for his all-day snail breakfast.

"Twenty-five years ago, when we first opened, we couldn't have put snails on the menu. People simply weren't ready," David Everitt-Matthias says. "Now, customers have grown up with us, and got used to trying things that are slightly different. So they're willing to give snails a go."

Known for foraging for many of the ingredients used in his two-Michelin-starred Cheltenham restaurant, David collects nearly half of his snails in the wild (when his dog doesn't get them first). He uses them for flavour and texture in his ground-elder and snail risotto, or makes them into fritters to top balls of chicken mousse served as nibbles. "As the nibbles are free of charge, people try them. Maybe next time, they'll order snails as one of their dishes."

Phil Fanning loves snails' earthiness. "In the past, we tended to hide their taste with parsley and garlic," he says. "So we never experienced their wonderful earthiness, rather like the earthiness you get with beef or beetroot. Snails used in restaurants used to be tinned, which don't have half the flavour. As a result they tended to be sidekicks rather than the central focus of a dish."

Inside the kitchen at Paris House, a half-timbered gem on the Duke of Bedford's estate in Woburn, I watch Phil assemble a starter of beef carpaccio and braised Aylesbury snails, confit egg yolk, and crispy shallots, which he'll be offering on the à la carte menu this evening.

The dish is topped with a delicacy that some might find a garnish too far: snails' eggs, resembling dainty white pearls. Known as "snail caviar", they have a price tag to match – a kilo will set you back around £1,300 – which is probably why until now only chefs such as Ferran Adria at El Bulli (now closed) have used them.

"A lady called Sophie turned up at the kitchen door with some eggs in a jar," smiles Phil. "I'd never heard of them. I'd seen the tiny ping-pong balls in the garden but not realised what they were. I tried a number of curing methods and recipes and eventually found ways of using them that worked. Their earthy, 'foresty' flavour is unique – if anything, they taste better than the snail meat. They're far superior to caviar, which can often just be fishy goo."

Phil often uses the snail eggs to enhance the meat, and bring out its flavour. "We do braised beef with snails and their eggs, for instance, using the eggs almost as seasoning."

I nip to nearby Aylesbury, where Sophie Wharton produces both escargots (the palatable name for snails) and "pearls" (the palatable name for the eggs) in her back garden. They're all Helix aspersa – garden snails to you and me – which Sophie has been fascinated with since childhood. "I used to collect them, wrap them in tissue paper and keep them in my pockets. Once, they ended up in the washing machine. Mum wasn't amused," she laughs.

The commercial enterprise began two years ago when, after a visit to a snail farm, Sophie ordered 70 snails by post to eat. "When they arrived, they'd eaten all the recipes inside and were starting on the packaging. They were ravenous," she recalls. "We decided not to eat them, and instead found a box to put them in. We'd no idea what to feed them – the lady who'd sold them advised milk. We also tried vegetables, and spaghetti, which they loved.

"Eventually, my husband, Mike, bought some living salads at Aldi. The snails went mad, laid hundreds of eggs in the soil and 21 days later they all hatched out. It was bedlam – we had mums and dads in the sitting room and babies on the kitchen table. At Christmas, we moved them all into the conservatory. Finally, they took over Mike's tool shed in the garden and soon we built another, and then a polytunnel."

In time, Sophie learnt how to process the eggs, making her the only producer of fresh snail caviar in Britain, and probably in Europe, too. After harvesting them from their pots of soil, Sophie uses a fine-tipped paintbrush and magnifier to select the best ones, then cures them so they can be eaten raw. Snails to be sold for meat are purged, then slowly braised in Sophie's kitchen. Both are now sold at Fortnum & Mason.

Not only are snails "enormous fun" (take it from Sophie) but they have an awesome sex life, too – which I had the dubious privilege of witnessing. Snails are hermaphrodites so can all mate. A snail signals that it fancies another by firing hard, sharp, calcareous "love darts" at it. Once they've got it together, one whips out its penis, kept just below its eye like the inverted finger of a glove, and joins it with its mate's organ for an exchange of semen that can take up to six action-packed hours. One snail then burrows into the earth and lays around a hundred eggs. Each egg hatches into a snail that is ready for the pot within around four months – unless, of course, some discerning gastronome nabs them first.

For more information, see aylesbury-escargots.co.uk or parishouse.co.uk

Who's doing what with snails

With his snail porridge at the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal is the chef who got snails slithering back onto the menu. Porridge oats are topped with a delicious mixture of ham, mushrooms, parsley, garlic and sautéd snails.

Marcus Wareing at his eponymous London restaurant marries Dorset snails with Galloway beef fillet, horseradish and celery.

Gordon Ramsay makes a fricassée of snails with spinach, baby artichokes, mushrooms, pancetta and Jerusalem artichoke puree.

David Everitt-Matthias, at the Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, does a ground-elder and snail risotto, as well as a surf-and-turf mix of snails with winkles and whelks.

Allan Pickett, at Plateau in Canary Wharf, serves English parsley risotto with sautéd garlic butter snails and red wine jus.

Jez Barfoot and Matt Davey at The Tickled Pig in Wimborne make a snail pizza with Dorset snails, wood blewits, garlic and parsley.

Steve Pielesz offers an all-day snail breakfast of garlic snails and the usual fried breakfast at the Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster, Dorset.

Snails' Eggs, Apple and Beetroot Blinis

By Sophie Wharton

Makes 24

Blini

150g milk
8g fresh yeast
75g buckwheat flour
50g plain flour
1 egg yolk
150g egg white

Salad

1 small baked beetroot, finely diced
1 small Granny Smith apple, finely diced
25g escargot pearls
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon vinaigrette
Maldon sea salt to taste

Mix all blini ingredients together with a whisk and leave covered in the fridge overnight. Spoon small dots of the batter into a medium-hot frying pan with a tiny bit of oil, cook until golden on both sides.

Mix salad ingredients (apart from pearls) together and spoon a generous helping onto a blini. Top with a few pearls.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam