For nearly a decade and a half a family-run company from Wimborne has been putting the gastro into gastropod by producing the last word in slow food – snails.
They’re low fat, protein-rich, waste-free and unexpectedly versatile, so much so that last year Dorset Snails won the Farm To Fork category at the Future Food Awards that celebrate and support alternative sources of food.
From a humble unit on an out-of-town industrial estate the company has carved itself a niche in the market as the UK’s biggest producer of escargot from the country’s only indoor snail farm. Everything about Dorset Snails is home grown, including its client base that numbers household name chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing as well as a string of highly regarded gastro pubs and restaurants.
‘If they’re given a chance to try them, people love snails,’ says David Walker, convincingly. He co-founded the business with his wife Jennie and son Tony in 2006 and although Jennie and he have now retired – again – leaving Tony to run the business on his own, heliciculture gets busy and David needs little persuasion to lend a hand.
‘It’s Tony’s thing but we know the ropes if we’re needed. We actually retired from the hotel trade in 2002 and I started farming a few worms from my garage as bait for fishing, which is my hobby. Then Tony saw Gordon Ramsay on The F-Word and he interviewed a snail farmer in Devon so we thought we’d give it a go.
‘We visited the guy in Devon just as he was about to emigrate so we picked up a few tips, but most of what we’ve learned has been by trial and error. Originally we reared worms and snails side by side until it became clear the snails were more viable so the worms had to go.’
Despite the evidence of Dorset’s vegetable gardens and allotments, there’s more to cultivating snails than meets the eye.
‘It has taken years of research, development and some serious investment to get to this point, that’s why we’re a little cagey about our systems – we don’t want others copying what we do.’
And it’s not just any old snail that’s fit for the table, far from it.
‘Helix aspersa Müller, your average garden snail that feeds predominately on green leaves, is a pretty scrawny chap when you get him out of his shell. Our snails are Helix aspersa Maxima and they grow bigger because they’re fed on a high-protein diet. They would grow to as much as thirty grammes each but we harvest them at about fourteen grammes.’
The snails are sold fresh, blanched or oven-ready, mostly out of shell. Some are sold in-shell, ready to cook with garlic and parsley but they’re not in their own shells they’re housed in bigger Helix lucorum shells, collected wild and imported from Turkey.
‘Most of our snails are eaten in garlic and parsley butter, which somewhat undoes the case for them being a health food, so you need bigger shells to make sure there’s room for the meat and the garlic and parsley butter,’ David explains.
‘Some chefs still don’t want to know, or think their customers won’t go for them, but the more progressive chefs try all sorts of recipes and all of them report good sales. We get chefs that try them in red wine jus and we had one who made a delicious dish serving them sandwiched between an oxtail jus at the bottom of the shell and the garlic butter on top.
‘The Bridge House Hotel at Beaminster does an all day breakfast of snails served on fried bread with crispy bacon, poached quail’s egg, Dorset down mushroom, tomato and black pudding. My favourite though has to be snails with garlic and parsley butter and Gorgonzola cheese.’
Dorset Snails cultivates around 12,000 snails a week all year round in poly tunnels in a former broiler shed. The breeding snails are contained in boxes and bury their eggs in a peat preparation. Once hatched, they’re fed on Lamlac ewe milk replacer and a secret blend of ingredients designed to fatten the snails for eating.
They take several weeks to mature, but once the snails reach a suitable weight for harvest they are purged and dried to expel impurities and reduce water content before being refrigerated for a month in a state of hibernation. In the final stage they are boiled for a couple of minutes, rinsed under cold water, removed from the shells and washed in a salt and vinegar brine to remove the mucus.
The blanched snails are sold in packs or oven-ready presented in shells with garlic and parsley butter, delivered overnight by courier. Dorset Snails are not a fast food solution though, the oven-ready packs recommend cooking for at least two and a half hours, but David says many chefs cook snails for six hours and even leave them on low overnight to properly tenderise while retaining some bite.
A more recent development is the production of snail caviar – the snail eggs prepared and sold in small jars as the ultimate gastropod delicacy. Naturally colourless, they take on a milky, oyster white complexion in pasteurisation, a process that increases their shelf life.
‘They’re usually served as an accompaniment to snails,’ explains David. ‘When the chef Gordon Jones, who has been on Great British Menu a couple of times, was at the Green House Hotel in Bournemouth he created a starter served on a bone roasted in coffee so that it looked like a log with a couple of snails, some Dorset down mushroom and snail caviar. It was beautiful.’
Dishes such as the ones David mentions encapsulate how Britain’s attitude to food has changed in the last couple of decades and Dorset is home to some of the country’s finest local produce.
‘What we sell is a million miles from those chewy, inedible things we might have tried in France. By far the majority of snails consumed in France are tinned and a lot of French restaurants in this country use tinned snails even though the French only produce a fraction of the snails they eat – the rest are imported.
‘When we started Dorset Snails it was six months before I ate one,’ he confesses. ‘It was a Portuguese chef that persuaded me and I soon got the taste. I think generally people are far more open to trying new things than they used to be. If we’d started the business thirty years ago we’d have had a much tougher time. People are ready for snails in this country now.’
• First published in Dorset Life The County Magazine.