CUTCHOGUE, N.Y. — Life on the nation’s only USDA-certified snail farm is, as one might imagine, pretty slow. And quiet. And small, with the entire farm contained within one 300-square-foot greenhouse in the middle of Long Island’s wine country. At Peconic Escargot, 30,000 to 50,000 petit gris snails coexist in large plastic bins of dirt, munching on wild greens, living a life mostly free of drama.
“A snail farm wants to be quiet and low-key. Snails can’t hear, but they’re very sensitive to vibrations, touch, heat and light. You don’t want to stress them out,” said Taylor Knapp, Peconic Escargot’s self-proclaimed “head snail wrangler.” Stress means slime, which snails produce as a defense mechanism. The snail wrangler does not want slime. “They’re at their slimiest when you’ve irritated them.”
Still, the snail farm is not entirely absent of intrigue. “We haven’t had any escapes,” Knapp said. When I laughed, he replied, “No, really. That’s what the USDA is worried about. These snails would be an invasive species.” The neighboring farmers and winegrowers would be furious.
Knapp called me over to where some excitement was apparently happening. “You don’t see this very often, but here are two that are mating,” he said, pointing into the bin. He explained that petit gris (Cornu aspersum) are famous for shooting love darts when they mate. “Scientists haven’t quite figured out why they do it,” he said. “It’s bizarre.”
What’s perhaps even more bizarre is that snails might be having a bit of a culinary moment. Along with a continued interest in local ingredients and alternative, sustainable protein, there has been a resurgence of hip French restaurants, such as Frenchette in New York City, where diners line up to eat the status-symbol brouillade, a dish of scrambled eggs topped with Peconic’s snails in garlic butter.
I don’t really know what I expected to find on my visit to the snail farm, but I certainly didn’t anticipate describing these mollusks as “cute.” Yet there I was, wandering through the greenhouse, cooing “awww” when they poked their little heads, with their googley-eyed antennae, out from their shells.
“We actually have to be careful of the way we portray them on Instagram,” Knapp said. “We don’t want to portray snails as cute. We want people to eat them.”
Cuteness aside, the reason most people don’t eat snails is twofold: They either think of the gross, slimy critters in their gardens, or they have a negative reaction to cliched escargot — always on the menu in French — and the highfalutin, old-fashioned image of the dish.
“We’re focused on convincing people who are too squeamish to eat snails. We’ve learned that we have to do much more education than we thought,” Knapp said.
The most surprising thing Knapp found was how many chefs did not know how to work with fresh snails. Pretty much all imported escargot served in restaurants are canned and precooked. In many cases, imported canned snails from France are simply a reheated delivery vehicle for consuming a ton of butter. The shells they’re served in at many restaurants are simply serving vessels that are dishwashed, sanitized and used again.
“All over the U.S., people are eating canned snails,” Knapp said. “We’ve encountered chefs that are so concerned with French products that they’d rather cook a canned snail from France rather than a fresh one from here.” In fact, although fresh snails are more common in France, a majority of the famed “Burgundian” snails (Helix pomatia) now actually come from Central Europe.
Worldwide, snails are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Last year, at least 140 scientific papers about endangered snails were published, detailing how pollution, pesticides and climate change are affecting the population.
“Snails are kind of a canary-in-the-coal-mine species, a sensitive environmental indicator,” said Ric Brewer, a former species survival coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Brewer says that although the Burgundian snail is disappearing from France, and there is concern for the species, they are still found in enough quantity elsewhere in Europe to avoid a designation as “endangered.”
Meanwhile, petit gris snails are not even close to endangered — more like the opposite. Although not native to North America, they have become an invasive pest here to farmers and gardeners, who would rather see them on a menu than nibbling their crops. As it happens, Brewer now raises petit gris snails that he finds near his home in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and sells them to restaurants in the Pacific Northwest under the label Little Gray Farms (petit gris means “little gray”).
Brewer sees a potentially sustainable food source from this invasive species. “Snails have a much smaller carbon footprint than most traditional protein sources,” Brewer said. “They’re a healthy protein, low in fat and really versatile.” Knapp says he’s able to produce 40 pounds of protein a week from his 300-square-foot greenhouse, a much smaller footprint than beef, pork or chicken.
Still, the petit gris’ reputation as an invasive species is why it’s so difficult to obtain a USDA certification for a farm. Brewer hopes to soon have the second USDA-certified snail farm so he can import more petit gris for propagation than he can find in the wild. “It’s been painfully difficult,” he said. ‘They’re afraid you’ll let them loose.”
When Knapp hatched the idea for Peconic Escargot with his wife, Kate, in 2013, he was working as a chef on Long Island. Before that, he had worked at several restaurants in Europe, including the renowned Noma in Copenhagen. He was astonished to find that he couldn’t get fresh snails in the United States. At first, he launched a Kickstarter campaign, but soon enough he had to seek out significant investment. “We’ve spent thousands of dollars working with the USDA,” he said. “This is not a get-rich-quick scheme.” They’ve only been selling snails since last summer.
The learning curve was steep. “I’m not a farmer, I’m not a biologist. There are no other snail farmers in the U.S. to talk with.” In the beginning, they killed a lot of snails because the greenhouse was too hot. Then they tried to feed them cornmeal, the way producers in Europe do. But American cornmeal is much coarser, and the diet blocked the snails’ intestines. “They’d swell up and they’d literally explode. It was awful,” he said. Now, the snails at Peconic subsist on an all-natural diet of greens such as wild watercress, dandelion, burdock, clover and sorrel. And lots of dirt, from which they take in minerals and calcium.
Once the snails have matured and they’re ready for eating, they’re placed in a dirt-free pen and “purged” of soil from their digestive systems. This is important, because when you eat a snail, you’re also eating whatever was left in its digestive tract. That’s why purging is essential when collecting wild snails, which may have eaten something that’s toxic or simply tastes bad. In this way, snails are similar to their fellow mollusks, oysters.
Usually, during the purging at Peconic, the snails eat spent grain, malted barley that had been used in craft beer production. Knapp pointed to one special bin and said, “These guys here are purging on mint.” This last supper was at the request of chefs at the famed Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan.
Peconic’s snails are not cheap. For consumers who order by mail, they’re $65 per pound shelled, and in the shell $15 per dozen, or $36 for four dozen. Shelf life, much as with seafood, is tricky: seven days at most in the refrigerator. For this reason, they “devitalize” (i.e. kill) snails to order. This “devitalization” process is a trade secret Knapp would not reveal.
Fresh snails, unlike canned, are a little more like octopus or calamari. In or out of the shell, you need to marinate them (I used garlic, parsley, lemon zest and a little white wine) and sauté, grill or poach them for a couple minutes at very high temperature. Otherwise you need to braise them slowly in some kind of stock for a half-hour or so. Either way, they are distinctly different from canned versions.
“Canned snails aren’t bad. They’re just completely different. They’re really mealy and more earthy. Taylor’s are really small, fresh and vegetal, and a little briny,” said Ryan Angulo, chef-owner of French Louie in Brooklyn, who was one of Peconic’s first customers. French Louie has had a dish, with the snails cooked in a bordelaise-style red wine sauce with bacon and mushrooms and served on a pile of grits, as an appetizer on the menu since its opening in 2014. Angulo switched to fresh Peconic snails last year.
“I wanted to find fresh local snails, and the only thing I’d heard was a myth of some person foraging snails out in the Pacific Northwest. Then I came across Peconic’s Kickstarter and donated $30. It’s really weird that he’s the only one.”
Jared Braithwaite, executive chef at Colonie in Brooklyn, was similarly inspired by fresh snails, creating a dish based on classic spaghetti vongole: Campanelle pasta with quick-braised snails and lots of minced garlic, fresh mint, white wine and lemon zest. Braithwaite then adds what he calls “snail dashi,” based on the Japanese seafood stock, but with the liquid from the package of snails added.
“Our job is to get people eating different things,” Braithwaite said. The kitchen rule he lives by: “If you want to get someone to eat something that they don’t know if they like, put it in a pasta.”
Knapp sees an obvious comparison. “Not too long ago, there were a lot of people who were not keen on eating raw oysters,” he said. “Now, the oyster industry is booming. Now, people talk with their waiter for 15 minutes about where the oysters come from. Maybe the escargot industry will be there in 10 to 20 years.”
Wilson is the author of, most recently, “Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure and Underappreciated Wine” (Abrams, 2018).