I’m going on a snail hunt

2012-01-14 00:00

FIRST, catch your snail. This is as easily done as said, especially now when every shrub is festooned like Christmas with them. On a brief dawn foray, I gathered 100 or so from the mulberry bush, the orange tree and what’s left of the celery. The basil’s long gone and vegetable planting’s been on hold pending a solution­ to the snail problem (except for sweet potatoes, for which the snails don’t care much and the moles have left alone up to now).

In these times of austerity, it won’t do to allow such wanton destruction of one’s domestic food basket. Austerity is of course a relative term coined by the rich to tell the middle classes how they should live. In Britain­ this boils down to finding a cheaper university from which to get a degree that still won’t get you a job. In Greece it seems to mean the government can no longer bribe public servants with inflated salaries using money it doesn’t have. In the United States it means migrating from Apple­ to Android. Austerity is not, therefore, the same as poverty, but it does imply frugality, and that is a question of harnessing and nurturing your resources.

So, to protect what we have, I had been religiously squashing every snail in sight and encouraging our young Labrador’s unusual relish for them. However, it occurred to us that our appreciation of our available resources was somewhat circumscribed by convention, and that we needed to adjust our attitude. And so we finally conceded: if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em. It is one of life’s great pleasures, to be able to eat your enemy.

But before doing so, as I say, you have to catch them. And having done so, don’t assume that that is the end of that. Snails are speedier than they are given credit for, and if you turn your back they’re out of the bucket and away while you’re still contemplating how to cook them.

Most cookbooks are less useful than one would expect on this subject. South African cookbooks are singularly useless, but they are not alone in assuming that the recipe sought will entail canned snails, and proceed from there straight to the garlic butter-and-bake stage of preparation. One of the drawbacks of such limited instructions is that nothing is said about the type of snail one is eating. French cookbooks will usually specify vineyard snails, or the petit-gris variety if its larger cousins are in short supply. The common garden snail in South Africa is the Helix aspersa, less plump than the French vineyard snail, but equally edible and prepared in the same way.

All recipes have in common a warning that the snails may have ingested either a pesticide, or plants that, while harmless to them, are poisonous to humans. One suggestion is to starve them for a week before cooking, and the most extreme recommendation is to harvest only in winter, when they are in hibernation and will not have eaten anything anyway. Better, however, is simply to feed them cleaned carrots or bran or nasturtium leaves for a week, and rinse them daily in clean water.

Before cooking, soak the snails in salt water for two hours. Then wash them again and pop them into boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove them from their shells, put in cold water and wash again.

Prepare a vegetable broth with half a litre of water (wine is optional) chopped carrots, onions, celery — all of which are now flourishing in your garden because the snails have been rounded up — bouquet garni, one clove of garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Bring water to the boil, pop in the snails and everything else, then simmer for three hours over very low heat. The snails themselves don’t take more than 30 minutes or so to be ready, especially if you prefer them a bit chewy, so the simmering time is a matter of taste and not to ensure that the snails are thoroughly dead or detoxed. One hour on moderate heat will also be fine.

You can serve the dish at this stage, together with some good bread.

Alternatively, remove the snails to a small dish, add the garlic butter, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and bake until the butter is sizzling. This way you get two meals: snails for starters and soup and bread for main.

Think of it as a royal approach to austerity when the recession drives you out of Woolies.

Ingredients (serves 4)

4 dozen snails

For the broth:

Half a litre of water

bouquet garni (bay leaf, thyme)

salt and pepper

2 carrots

2 onions

1 clove of garlic

For the garlic butter:

Take 400 g of butter and mix with two finely chopped cloves of garlic and 25 g of parsley.

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