Attitudes toward food change constantly, and perfectly edible food that is shunned in one era might be highly prized in another. Early European colonists in America almost starved before eating the lobsters all around them, and even then they were considered disgusting, used only for feeding prisoners and servants and baiting fishhooks. Only about a hundred years ago did lobster become prized as a delicacy, until today it drives an industry worth $280 million in America alone.
People today have similarly strange attitudes towards snails. They command a high price in expensive restaurants, where they are shipped in from France at great cost – yet we might have hundreds of identical snails in our own garden, and try to get rid of them.
The common snails seen in Irish gardens are the same species as restaurant snails, and are perfectly edible – you are not likely to see the few bad-tasting or endangered species. In fact, that's how they came to be on the islands -- they are not native to Britain or Ireland, and were brought to England by Romans specifically for breeding and eating, only to get loose -- as rabbits would do under the Normans a thousand years later, and grey squirrels a thousand years after that.
To this day, a few people here raise them in their homes or gardens for profit or food, and they are about the lowest-maintenance livestock – if that’s the word – that you can keep.
Snails love to crawl up wet walls and can often be seen in large numbers after a rain – in the day, or when it’s drier, they wedge themselves in crevices and hide in their shells. Take some children with you, and gathering them will be as fun as finding Easter eggs.
Even snails raised in the safest environments would need to be starved for at least two or three days, and these days there is a particular danger they may have eaten poison or pesticides, so keep them at home and feed them for a while until anything bad has passed out of their system. I keep mine in a plastic tub with air holes for a few weeks, and each day I clean out the tub and give them slices of organic carrot. Some recommend only a week or two to clean out the toxins, but I like to be on the safe side. Don’t give them any food in the last few days before cooking them.
To cook snails, wash them and place them to one side and boil some water. Snails don’t have much of a brain stem, but if you are concerned about their feeling pain you can place them in the refrigerator while the water boils, and they will go to sleep.
I toss them in the boiling water for about ten minutes, pour them into a strainer, run them under cold water, and with a skewer fish them out of the shell. Cut away the gall, the last piece to come out of the shell.
I like to fry a few slivers of finely-sliced rashers (bacon) in a pan and fry for a few minutes until they are lightly done. Then I toss in a heap of de-shelled snails, stir and cook for about ten more minutes.
I add some spices and finely-chopped scallions about five minutes in, a big colander of washed parsley right before the end and sautee the lot for a minute or so. Finally, I glaze the pan with lemon juice. I then serve them over diced salad with avocados. You, of course, can experiment with whatever way you like best.
Brian Kaller is a former newspaper editor from Missouri and now lives in rural Ireland with his family. He continues to write freelance articles, published in the American Conservative, his local newspaper, and his blog, http://www.restoringmayberry.blogspot.com.