How the Rocket Man created a launchpad for my edible snail trail

Serendipity brings on a random snail trail. Flicking through the index of Brown and Mason’s magnum opus, The Taste of Britain, to clarify my thoughts on Kentish cobnuts – for the first of my ‘Autumn Is The Season’ vignettes – I encountered the Mendip Wallfish and was immediately intrigued.

Since when my mind has been roaming those Somerset hills from the days when the Romans mined for lead there and introduced edible snails to our land… to the 1960s, when a maverick rocket engineer put those Mendip molluscs on the menu of his pioneering microbrewery pub… to the current small scale renaissance in snail farming. Well, high in protein, low in fat, it is the ultimate Slow Food.

The picture above is of the last platter of snails I downed, in those peripatetic, pre-pandemic times. Escargots au beurre d’ail are a fixture on the menu of Le P’tit Castel in the hilltop Jura fastness of Chateau-Chalon, one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

The escargots were beauts too, six chewy little buggers in garlic-flecked froth, equal to the ones I was served (with Pernod in the garlic butter naturellement) at Soho’s venerable L’Escargot, below, which also has a feuilleté of snails and morels on the menu. The Jura view was magnificent too. Burgundy, heartland of the dish, was a distant blue blur across Bresse’s vine-clad plain.

Location, location. I’m not sure The Miners Arms, Priddy, in the Sixties before they really became The Sixties, could offer the same je ne sais quoi at a crossroads in uplands scarred by past lead extraction. New owner Paul Leyton’s own homage to the miners was his variation on the Cornish pasty, the Priddy Oggie, containing pork, bacon and cheese. More challenging was his reintroduction of the mysterious Mendip Wallfish, a native snail dish that substituted cider and mixed herbs for garlic butter.

Why wallfish? It probably relates to snails’ ability to cling to walls, but the ‘fish’ part might be a way of transgressing the Catholic church’s prohibition of meat eating on Fridays.

That edict would definitely rule out dormice but the Romans’ relish for farmed, corn-fed rodents doesn’t appear to have transferred to Britain when they conquered it. Snails certainly did make the leap (sic) – notably the large Roman snail (helix pomatia), still popular in France and Italy. Below, is my colleague Joby Catto’s image of snails and citrus in Catania Market, Sicily. Giant African land snails are a whole different kettle of wallfish, of which more later.

C.Ann Wilson’s wonderfully scholarly Food and Drink in Britain (1973) charts Roman snail farming: “Snails had to be kept on land surrounded entirely by water, to prevent them wandering way and disappearing. They were fed on milk or wine-must and spelt, and were put into jars containing air holes for the final plumping up. When they were so much fattened that they could no longer get back into their shells, they were fried in oil and served with oenogarum (liquamen mixed with wine).

By medieval times snails had long been an essential foodstuff and remained so for the Somerset miners well into the 19th century. The resurgence of Mendip Wallfish 100 years on was all down to the restless mind of Leeds-born Leyton, who had forsaken an engineering career, as chief developer for Britain’s first rocket programme in the Fifties and  then a director of Black and Decker. With no catering background, he took a major gamble with the Miners Arms. One that paid off, receiving acclaim from Egon Ronay and The Good Food Guide. 

By 1973 when the pub had incorporated England’s smallest brewery, it was regularly attracting what we now call celebs. Did we then? The roll call included Delia Smith, Terry Wogan, Kate Adie, Malcolm MacDowell, Anthony Hopkins. How many ordered the wallfish, I wonder? Maybe Delia pronging into the shells with a cry of ‘let’s be havin’ you, molluscs’?

Leyton’s obituary in 2011 recounts that his “engineering background still shone through in the world of catering: first, with the design of an electric fence to keep up to 100,000 snails at a time in a disused swimming pool; and then, with the introduction of the freezing of prepared snails and other complete dishes. This led to considerable debate in gastronomic circles at a time when freezing was only considered suitable for basic ingredients.”

A tiny clip on British Movietone shows the ingenious Leyton stuffing snails with a device of his own invention. Plus there’s a period Pathe News report, with a wonderful Cholmondley-Warner style commentary, on his snail project, available via YouTube

The Miner’s Arms is no more. After selling 4,000 snails a year at its apogee the restaurant closed down in 2006. This recipe for the common brown garden snail, from Bob Reynolds who cooked at the Miners Arms, contains the key caveat: ensure you purify them thoroughly before cooking. Buy them ready prepared if you are squeamish.

Snails Priddy style

Collect snails, put into a container in which they can be kept moist and can breathe. Feed them on bran or lettuce or cabbage leaves for seven to 10 days. This cleanses them. Put in a sieve and dunk them in boiling water for a few seconds to kill them. Take the snails from the shells with a small fork, wash them off and then cook. To cook about a 100 you need a pint of water, ¾ pint of cider, a large carrot and an onion cut into pieces. Make sure the snails are covered in liquid. Bring to the boil and simmer until tender for about an hour – it may take a little longer. Rinse in hot water to clean off the bits of vegetables.

Meanwhile put the empty shells in a saucepan with salt and water and bring to the boil. After a few minutes rinse in cold water. Repeat to make sure the shells are clean. Dry the shells in the oven.

After which you will need a pound of butter for 100 snails. Then grind together herbs, fresh or dry – ½tsp of each of chervil, dill, fennel seed, basil and sage; 1tsp chives, 3tsp parsley and a pinch of cayenne pepper – and mix well into the butter.

Take a snail shell, put a little bit of the herb butter into it, then a snail and seal off the shell with more herb butter. Then put the snails on a tray and put into a hot oven. When the butter bubbles they are ready to eat. Serve with cubes of bread to mop up the herb butter. Enjoy.

Lyn Paxman of Somerset Escargots brings a new entrepreneurial spirit to snail farming

So where can you buy the best snails in the land?

An hour’s drive away from Priddy a serious renaissance in Somerset snail farming is under way at Somerset Escargot, founded in 2019. On a farm complete with electric fences, salt traps and herding pens Lyn ‘Queen of Snails’ Paxman and her partner specialise in petit gris, picked and prepare to order. The fresh escargot is then supplied cleansed and hibernated, which means they are the freshest possible when they are cooked. They cost £25 per 500g bag plus £4.90 delivery.  

Other UK snail operators include Dorset Snails, who supply Gordon Ramsay restaurants and L’Escargots Anglais at Credenhill in Herefordsshire, whose Helix pomatia are the base for Heston Blumenthal’s modern classic, Snail Porridge (see below). H & RH Escargots of Canterbury have long been the UK’s premier supplier of live snails. Ready-to-cook, they are delivered to you in cardboard boxes, with a plastic mesh so they can’t eat their way out!

You’ve got your snails. What else can you do with them in the kitchen?

Snail Broth

Marwood Yeatman is an eccentric national treasure. From his base in an old Hampshire pub in 2007 this private chef produced his magnum opus, The Last Food of England (Ebury Press), which is at its best when unashamedly nostalgic. He recounts how he was lent an old book of recipes by Roald Dahl’s wife Liccy that belonged to her mother’s family, the Throckmortons, Warwickshire confederates of Guy Fawkes. How to pot an otter and viper soup feature, but there’s also a recipe for Snail Broth, which sounds on the medicinal side.

Having slit and cleaned the slime off 50 or so… “Have ready a chicken cut in pieces with a little bugloss, agrimony and the leaves of endives, and so boil them in the broth. When the chicken is half boyld, put in the snails being clean wiped, so let them boil until all the strength is boiled out. When the broth is ready to take off put in either a little mace or rosemary, which her pleaseth the taste. Drink this a fortnight.”

Snail Porridge

If the above is too demanding of your foraging skills or spice cupboard, then you might fancy recreating this Heston Blumenthal special, which I’ve eaten a couple of times at The Fat Duck when I could (just about) afford it. The great man gives the recipe in an article he wrote for The Guardian nearly 20 year ago. The information on snail’s sex lives is eye-opening; so too is the amount of sweat and toil needed to prepare the dish, which is more like a vivid green oaten risotto. Good luck with it!

Dorset Snail with Bone Marrow and Toast

Dorset Snails continue a tradition of snail eggs or caviar that was on trend in the 1990s as gourmets sought an alternative to Beluga. They even featured in the title of a book, Snail Eggs & Samphire – by the best food journalist of the time, Derek Cooper. In it he recalls attending an outdoor ‘cargolade’ in Perpignan where 1,000 Helix pomatia (the wrinkled Roman Snail) are grilled in pork fat over intense heat. There’s  a separate chapter on the lucrative rarity value of the eggs, described by Cooper as like “pinky-beige, opalescent pearls”. Blumenthal compares the look to tapioca. Neither are fans. I’m a fan, though of the bone marrow treatment for snails, in Dorset’s recipe section. I have a stash of bone marrow; now I just need the molluscs.

Paella a la Valenciana

If your idea of paella is the seafood-led dish found all around the Spanish Costas, think again. In the Valencia region, spiritual home of the saffron-infused rice dish, traditional ingredients, especially inland, include rabbit and snails, the whole dish best cooked outdoors in one of those vast, flat-bottomed specialist pans. Claudia Roden, in her magisterial over-view, The Food of Spain (Michael Joseph, £25), quotes a Spanish expert on how the snails bring a taste of the rosemary they feed on. Every recipe in the book is tempting, the research exemplary.  The book is an essential Hispanophile purchase, even if you’re not pursuing edible snails.

 Pomegranate glazed African land snails

The most exotic snail dish I’ve come across is on our doorstep; well, Brixton Village’s. The acclaimed blogger Miss South included it in her celebration of the global diversity of food and folk in this South London market hall. I’ve visited; it’s a vibrant place, inevitable gentrification slowly creating a different vibe. The various traders and cafe owners contribute their favourite specialities to Recipes from Brixton Village (Kitchen Press, £15.99) with appropriate stockists. In this case the recipe is inspired by Viva Afro-Caribbean Food Store on 3rd Avenue, who provide the land snails (especially revered in Nigeria), with the pomegranate molasses for the glaze coming from Nour Cash and Carry on neighbouring Market Row. The author notes the shell alone of this particular snail can grow up to 20cm long, so it can be a challenge to open them. Next you scrub them clean with alum provided by the store. Hardcore food prep even before you start cooking in chicken stock with various spices. Not for the sluggish.