Snails for Sale

Our rosemary hedge is being visited by helix aspera. Snails. Escargots. Petit-gris, the elegant mollusk beloved of Frenchmen who walk around with garlic butter dribbled on their shirts.

In this climate, rosemary grows into a massive shrub, and ours is two metres high. Snail heaven.

Not far south of here, a farming family produces free-range organic snails for local chefs.

I’ve long hoped to justify my existence by becoming a food producer. So far I’ve failed at olives, grapes and figs, and my bold plan for growing Mexican limes in the north field interests nobody.

Now, fresh inspiration. Wild escargots, free-range and organic. Technically they aren’t my snails, so I asked my daughter-in-law if she had any plans for them. She gave me one of those looks reserved for mothers-in-law and infants, and said, “You’re kidding, right?”

At last, I have a crop! I appealed to fellow snail farmers here in New Zealand for further information.

“Pick them in the early morning. Put them in a box. Be sure you have a lid that fastens tight, because they’ll force it off and make a break for it.”

Armed with my fancy Christmas olive scoopers and a large plastic box with a lid to prevent runaways, I headed for the rosemary hedge before sunrise. There wasn’t a sound, except for the rooster down the road. That, and an odd crunching underfoot.

By the time I realized what the crunching was, I’d wiped out an entire night’s harvest.

Back to the experts, who advised that stepping on the little buggers was no way to further my enterprise.

I turned to an online source in Oz. (We snail-farmers are an international lot.)

“We use more intensive farming techniques, with reproduction and nursery-raising all done indoors in a climate-controlled area,” said my source. “The fatten-to-finish is done outside, in special pens.”

So much for free-range feeding.

“You’re better to feed snails a dry ration, rather than letting them gorge on green fodder,” Oz explained.

I wondered about a catch limit, this being wild game of sorts. It seems there isn’t one.

“A mature petit-gris weighs about 10 grams. You’ll need at least 24, or it won’t be worth your trouble.”

Determined to get it right this time, I took a flashlight. (Okay, a torch). I managed to capture seven. An eighth was squashed in my olive-scooper, and I dropped a few. God only knows how many were crushed underfoot. It’s a cruel world. I corralled my catch in a plastic box and sought further information online.

“Before cooking, you must purge them,” advised a fellow snail-farmer, this one in Singapore. “Ten days to fatten on cornmeal, four days starvation to purge.”

Fourteen days? What am I supposed to eat in the meantime? While my snails are fattening and purging, I could be starving here. Back to the hedges.

“Please note,” said Singapore. “They will push off a loose lid, and you’ll be stepping on escapees.” (Yes. Well, that ship has pretty much sailed.) “I don’t suppose you have snail forks?”

I do. And I have a recipe for filet of escargot with blue cheese, but it would take my entire stock, currently fattening in their plastic box. I may have to supplement my catch.

I’ve checked with The Italian Grocer, a local guy who assures me that his free-range organic snails are fresh-picked, just like mine. Then they travel to restaurants in little tin cans.

Judy’s new novel is Freddy’s War. Read her food and travel blog at