When I was about ten years old I had a pet snail named Sam. I brought him everywhere: Howard Johnson’s for ice cream, bicycle rides and to church on Sundays. I loved the way his little periscope eyes unfurled atop tiny tentacles and how he rarely retreated into his shell even though terrestrial snails are nocturnal. He stayed out so long during the day that I carried a spray bottle of water to keep him moist. Sam had another set of tentacles pointing down just below his eyes, as many snails do. Those shorter tentacles are mainly used for olfactory orientation; in other words, those are both his fingers and his nose. Snails can live up to ten years in captivity and I looked forward to a long relationship with Sam, but unfortunately it came to an abrupt end when my neighbor sat on him.
Years later I was writing a children’s book with a common garden snail like Sam as one of the characters. I needed to scientifically identify him with his proper Latin name. It was then that I learned that identifying terrestrial snails could be extremely difficult. Shell character can roughly allow the determination of a snail’s species, but a more accurate identification usually takes a scientific anatomical examination.
In the 1950s in Britain, two naturalists and evolutionary biologists, A.J. Cain and P.M. Sheppard, observed snail shell remains on rocks crushed by predators, mainly thrushes, in gardens throughout England. The pair theorized that snails apparently evolve shell coloration according to their particular predators as well as environmental conditions, and that makes distinguishing the species of a snail from one neighborhood to the next almost impossible. This, among other things, turned the International Gastropod Society (yes, a gastropod society really exists) upon its head and stirred up a raging controversy among its members.
The taxonomy of the Gastropoda is under constant revision; two major revisions have been published in the last twenty years, and at present, it may differ from author to author. The snail’s great adaptability has made it one of the most successful animal groups on the Earth: Falkner (1990) states a number of around 25,000 species worldwide. Numerous special adaptations have made this remarkable speciation possible, for example, pulmonate land snails are able to save water and breathe dry air. Snails being hermaphrodites certainly doesn’t hurt either.
When the snail reaches full adult size, it builds a thickened lip around the shell aperture, as the opening is called. At this point the snail stops growing, and begins reproducing. Unlike a marine snail’s development of passing different larval stages, the development of terrestrial snails takes place almost exclusively within the egg. In the end, complete young snails hatch, resembling the adults.
Snails are nocturnal and they also hibernate in winter. They have a strong homing instinct. At night they all retreat to the same “safe” location and this is why you may have encountered a pile of them under a bush or stuck en masse on the bottom of an old board. High temperatures and low humidity will also trigger their retreat to safer ground.
Most snails feed on decaying organic material or on leaf molds and don’t really do that much damage in the garden. But in Florida there’s a new snail in town these days—the giant African land snail—and this gargantuan species eats everything in its path. It finds itself right at home (literally) in Miami-Dade’s tropical paradise, and it’s being called an invasion.
All snails need high calcium in their diets, and most live on calcareous soils, so stucco houses are coming in handy. Young African snails are munching on house stucco and even cement as they seek calcium to strengthen their growing shells and, in the process, are creating quite a mess. Unlike the common snails, the giant African snails attack over 500 known species of plants. In some Caribbean countries, such as Barbados, which are overrun with the creatures, the snails’ shells blow out tires on the highway and turn into hurling projectiles from lawnmower blades, while their slime coats walls and pavement.
Although most Americans have never eaten snails (unless you were around in the sixties and seventies when Escargot seemed to be on every appetizer menu), we cringe at eating them although we happily eat other mollusks like clams, oysters, scallops, mussels and less commonly, squid, octopus and conch. Well, garden snails are mollusks, too.
Escargot is widely considered to be a French dish, but in fact, snails have been eaten for thousands of years by people from a variety of cultures. Empty shells have been found in great abundance in the prehistoric caves of human inhabitants. In both Yarimburgaz Cave in Turkey and Franchthi Cave in Greece, there is evidence of the use of the terrestrial snail Helix pomatia for consumption since prehistoric times. These shells were found during archeological research which dates snail shell sediments to 10,700 B.C. Greeks and Romans considered snails to be a delicacy, and in Central and South America and in Australia, escargot is consumed as a main meal. In Africa, particularly in Nigeria and South Africa, even the giant African snail is consumed as a traditional food.
Marcus Porcius Cato, (234 B.C.-149 B.C.), a Roman statesman and prolific writer, wrote a treatise on snail farming as Rome was beginning to view agriculture as a profitable business endeavor. Even today, snail cultivation has real economic significance. In France alone it is believed that 40,000 tons of snails are eaten per year. A large part of those are wild snails picked and imported from Eastern Europe and Turkey. From an ecological point of view this is not so good, as those snails are not traceable. Nobody knows exactly where they come from, sometimes not even what kind of snails they are.
Snail farms are coming back into vogue. Young entrepreneurs are popping up all over the world. Currently snail cultivation is all the rage in Europe. Not just any type of snail farming, but certified organic, free-range snail farms.
There are many species of snail considered edible, but some are preferred over others. In France, usually the escargot petit-gris (Cornu aspersum) is cultivated, though this species cannot compete with the escargot de Bourgogne (Helix pomatia) in taste and size. Helix aspersum, also called the common snail due to its abundant distribution worldwide in temperate climates, has very few demands in captivity. Cepaea hortensis, I believe, and Cepaea nemoralis are the snails that we find most often on the Cape. It is hypothesized by some that they are introduced species but disputed by others in favor of the theory that they crossed in prehistoric times during land mass separation from Europe, as the same snails are also found there in great abundance. Although small compared to other species, they are still cooked and eaten, but usually in snail stews rather than being served in the shell. Many introduced species are found in North America and a few fledgling escargot breeding farms have started up here in the United States. Snail eggs have recently found popularity as well, and are being marketed as “snail caviar”.
I have heard that the infamous, French escargot de Bourgogne made its way into this country back in the late 1800s when a French immigrant dreamt of making his fortune raising snails in California. As the story goes, he ran into problems with the town fathers, got mad and released all of his snails into the neighborhood. Being from the Mediterranean, the snails thrived and are still populating the local community.
Another common species, Cornu aspersa, has gained popularity not only as food, but also as the chief ingredient in skin creams and gels (caracol cream) sold around the world, mainly within Latino communities. These creams are promoted as being suitable for wrinkles, scars, dry skin and acne. I just happen to have an old jar of it. I bought it when I lived in Mazatlan, Mexico, and thought it was made from some type of sea creature, since caracol means shell in Spanish. Little did I know I was rubbing snail cream into my face!
Snails that have been bred for consumption are safe to eat. Their diets have been monitored. However, it is important to use caution when collecting wild snails, and proper purging, de-sliming, fasting and pre-cooking (i.e., boiling) is necessary.
Besides plant matter, snails will also eat decaying matter, carrion and even mulch, compost or soil. The flavor of snails can be altered by what they eat, and some snails will have an unpleasant taste as a result. Snails that have consumed poisonous plants will in turn be poisonous until they have been purged. The Romans would pre-season their snails while purging them by feeding wine instead of water and adding herbs to their diet. After purging, a snail can be rinsed for three days with dill water and it will retain that flavor. Besides being delicious, snails are high in protein and low in fat, according to the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. Snails are 15 percent protein, 2.4 percent fat and 80 percent water. Escargot is also high in essential fatty acids such as linoleic and linolenic acids.
Raising snails isn’t as easy as it might seem. You need quite a bit of space, because a special limiting factor is a self-inflicted regulation among snails that prevents overpopulation. At most, only 20-25 snails can inhabit a 16 x 16-foot space. A snail’s slime contains a chemical agent limiting fertility, and the animals sense what the capacity of their small range can support. It is visibly disagreeable for a snail to have to crawl over another snail’s trace as well. So the number of snails able to be kept in one enclosure, in the long run, is very limited. Which means that from the beginning there must be several enclosures to raise the young snails. Within the well-contained space, a garden of vegetables like lettuce, radishes, herbs and other snail-enticing snacks is planted and maintained. Snails have Herculean strength for their size, and are master escape artists. A fine mesh of metal curled inward directs escaping snails back into their enclosure, because as they reach the top they drop back into their cage. Paths of raised slat boardwalks line the walkways, which serve as daytime protective housing for the snails. A fine mist constantly shields them from dryness and prevents them from hibernating within their shells in order to keep them producing in dry weather.
Many commercial snail breeders supplement their diets with barley, wheat and corn flour and always add calcium carbonate for shell development. Most land snails need a good supply of calcium in their diet and environment to produce a strong shell. A lack of calcium, or low pH in their surroundings, can result in thin, cracked, or perforated shells (what a great way to naturally detect calcium-poor soils). Usually a snail can repair damage to its shell over time if its living conditions improve, but severe damage can be fatal. My snails’ favorite foods are strawberries and bok choy. Oh, did I forget to mention my own little free-range clan: Claude, Jacques, Marie and friends?
Large or small, the garden snail has attained its greatest stature at the end of a fork. So today could be your lucky day! You may have common edible snails in your own backyard. In fact, it would be a miracle if you don’t. So go ahead, live like the Romans did! Bon appétit!
(escargot in butter and garlic)
Source: Jean-Pierre Silva, Hostellerie du Vieux Moulin, Bouilland, France, 1997
Yield: 2 Servings
- 1 tablespoon parsley, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon shallot, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon garlic, finely minced
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ tablespoon white wine
- 1 teaspoon cognac
- dash of nutmeg
- 6 tablespoons butter, softened
- 12 escargots de Bourgogne
- Using a mortar and pestle, pound parsley, shallot and garlic into a paste. Combine with salt, pepper, wine, cognac and nutmeg. Combine with butter. (Alternately, place parsley, shallot, garlic, salt, pepper, wine, cognac, and nutmeg in the bowl of a mini-food processor and process until minced. Add butter and process to combine.)
- Preheat oven to 450°F. Arrange snails in coarse salt on a baking tray. Top each with 1/12 of the escargot butter. Bake for 9 minutes, or until snails are warm.
Veronica Worthington is an organic farmer who grows heirloom vegetables for market and breeds heritage sheep for wool in West Dennis.