Snail ranching for fun and profit
Escargot with pesto
Even if you love eating snails, it is possible that you have never given much thought to the way they live…
But it’s hard to imagine what it actually means to care for snails unless you visit Mary Stewart, who lives in a mobile home in the agricultural area north of Bakersfield, Calif. To raise delicious snails, you apparently have to know what makes them tick, and Ms. Stewart, who turned 64 a few weeks ago, has spent a couple of decades educating herself.
She has learned that snails can move a lot faster than their reputation would suggest, especially when they pick up the lure of food. Spray them with mist, give them some crisp lettuce and “here they come, just like cows at feeding time,” she said. “You can hear them munching and crunching just like cattle. I’m serious. They’re fascinating. And they’re so strong.”
Strong? “These puppies can really push,” she said. Don’t expect to contain them in, say, a box with a screen set on top. “If enough of them get up in the corner, they can actually push that screen loose.”
They also lead erotic lives of variety and vigor. “They’re hermaphrodites,” she said. “They have orgies. I’m serious. When they mate, they’re connecting male and female, female and male.”
It may often look as if snails aren’t doing anything. Ms. Stewart has learned that they are doing quite a bit. “That’s all they’re doing, is making love,” she said.
As part of their ritual of copulation, snails shoot each other with something known as a “love dart.” “Love” is certainly a word you could use to describe how Ms. Stewart feels about her gastropod herd, but after years of caring for and harvesting thousands of snails, she has figured out that there’s nothing romantic about letting one of those love darts pierce your skin…
Nathan Myhrvold, the man behind the “Modernist Cuisine” cookbooks, has cooked with her snails. Harold Dieterle has sporadically served them at Perilla, in the West Village, with hand-cut pasta and guanciale.
At Moto, in Chicago, the chef de cuisine, Richie Farina — using branches that he collects in the nearby woods — places the snails in a row so that they appear to be crawling up the stick in a tangle of (depending on what arrives from the distributor that week) wild mushrooms, edible flowers, a variety of greens and a garlic-herb “moss.” In a less theatrical mode, Brian Leth, the chef at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, pairs the snails with olive-oil-poached baby artichokes on flatbread.
RTFA for lots more about everything from snail sex to preparation for cooking – and anecdotes covering it all.
I love eating snails – though like the Italian side of my family, I prefer scungilli, the seagoing variety.