Marcus Wareing, Jason Atherton, Gordon Ramsay – just a few of the chefs who now appreciate the value snails can bring to a menu. And I’m not talking about the French kind, as you might expect, but their British-raised brethren instead.
It’s the first of many surprises in heliculture (snail farming, to you and me), and David Walker – a snail farmer who’s done business with the above household names – is about to reel off a few more revelations. ‘The French only produce around ten percent of the snails they consume,’ he says, ‘and almost every snail France produces goes into tins.’
You see, one of the first things David mentions is the inferiority of tinned snails, and it’s an inferiority that too many people experience, whether they realise it or not. ‘I was talking to a guy this morning. He tried snails, but would never have them again –he thought they were too chewy. That’s typical of a tinned snail. One chef described it as a sort of snail chewing gum, because you swallow once you get fed up with chewing in the end.’
As you might’ve guessed, David’s snails aren’t tinned. His family’s farm, in east Dorset, only rears the fresh stuff. Because of the typical British climate, and because snails love humid conditions (just take a look in your garden on a warm morning after a night of rain), everything’s done indoors.
‘The UK climate isn’t suitable for growing snails outdoors,’ says David. ‘So we’ve put polytunnels inside a chicken shed and we put loads of insulation over the polytunnel, so no daylight gets in at all. For best results, we need twelve hours with lights on, twelve with them off.’