In an unremarkable farm building deep in the Dorset countryside near Wimborne, thousands of plump Helix Apersa Maxima (snails to you and me) live like kings. Hand-reared on a snail-tastic diet of protein-rich feed and fragrant dried herbs, these gourmet gastropods are destined for the tables of the UK’s finest restaurants. David Walker, who runs Dorset Snails with his son and business partner Tony, just has one problem: they can’t produce enough to satisfy demand.
The Walker family has Gordon Ramsay to thank for this welcome dilemma. Tony Walker identified a business opportunity after watching Ramsay interview the owner of snail farm in Devon in 2006. At first, David and Tony’s plan was to run a snail business alongside their successful worm farm, but the snails proved so popular that worms were abandoned. Five years later Dorset Snails is one of the UK’s leading fresh snail suppliers, delivering up to 6,000 each week – or three tonnes a year – to top-end restaurants including Petrus, Claridge’s, The Connaught, Les Trois Garçons and Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley.
As David explained, getting the business to this point has not been plain sailing. The first shipment of 1,000 breeding snails died within months of arriving in the UK from Serbia. Although sufficient eggs were salvaged to form the basis of a breeding stock, it was another two years before the business could produce a sufficiently reliable supply to go to market. And there were more hitches: David’s first sale was to a well-known celebrity chef whose restaurant chain went bust before he paid the invoice.
“It has definitely been a labour of love,” said David, who admits to having never eaten a snail before starting the business. “When the first shipment of snails died it was a bloody nuisance. But looking back, it was probably the best thing that could have happened because we were able to concentrate on growing the snails rather than breeding them.
“It’s taken a lot of trial and error to develop the best way to feed them, the best diet to fatten them quickly and to get them to the point where they are the best that they can be.
“And you have to be able to produce eggs every week, otherwise you can’t supply regularly. It’s actually very difficult to get the breeding cycle right so that you have 6,000 snails available to sell every week.”
The pesky garden snail, Helix Apersa Muller, introduced to Britain by the Romans, is a wimpy thing compared to the beefy fellows produced by Dorset Snails. The best and fattest of these, which are reserved for breeding, can weigh up to 40g each while your typical garden snail weighs in at only 12g. This is thanks to the snail diet that David and Tony have painstakingly devised. And feeding them is a labour-intensive affair; David’s wife and daughter also work in the business, and even his 12-year-old granddaughter helps out occasionally.
All the snails at Dorset Snails are housed within a temperature-controlled poly tunnel inside a 4,000sq ft farm building. Snails are hermaphrodites, so every snail can lay eggs, but they need to couple with another snail for the eggs to be fertilized. The snails lay these eggs, which resemble tiny ping-pong balls, in nests within soil-filled trays in batches of about 100. They hatch about three weeks later.
The baby snails are transferred to aerated plastic boxes and after a few weeks the best are selected for a fattening, high-protein dry-food diet. They also receive regular showers to wash away waste matter. During the final stages of fattening, the snails are given a dried-herb mix to munch (parsley, mint, oregano and thyme – perfectly good enough to stuff a chicken) and 11–18 weeks after the eggs are laid the fattened snails are ready for harvesting. Finally, the snails are purged for a week – during which time they are fed only water – and washed thoroughly every day to completely rid them of waste matter.
The snails can then be stored in mesh bags in commercial fridges – alive but in a state of hibernation – until a customer places an order. When this happens, the snails are boiled in salt and vinegar to kill them and clean them, removed from their shells (Tony can shell 120 snails in five minutes), vacuum-sealed and delivered within 24 hours. Chefs simply simmer the snails very gently in the vacuum pack for a couple of hours or so before using them in recipes. For instance at Marcus Wareing, where Dorset Snails have become something of a signature dish, snails are served with a Galloway beef fillet, horseradish and celery.
David says demand for snails from professional chefs well exceeds supply; the family is in the process of redesigning the storage and production process, including the installation of a sprinkler system, to improve productivity without diminishing snail quality.
As well as producing more snails, David would like to change public perceptions about the creatures in the UK to encourage more home cooks to regard them less as slimy garden pests and more as a delicious and nutritious ingredient; after all they are full of protein and minerals, and contain no fat.
To this end, Dorset Snails will soon be available online to the general public, including a range pre-packed in Dorset butter and garlic from the Isle of Wight. There are also plans for smoked snails at Christmas.
Professional chefs realise how delicious these snails are and David thinks consumers would be pleasantly surprised if they were prepared to give them a try.
“When I sat down with Tony at the beginning I said that I didn’t care how long it took or how much it cost, but these were going to be the best-tasting snails that chefs can buy, and we have achieved that,” David says.
“They get a lot of herbs and this makes an enormous difference to their flavour. Tinned snails – which is what is widely eaten in France and a lot of Europe – are just carriers for garlic and can be very tough, chewy and gritty by comparison.
”That’s what it’s all about for us – absolute quality.”
For more information
Dorset snails: 01202 549 733.