Take another look at those garden pests
Words & pictures Paul Donovan
The French eat them in great numbers but few other people are quite as adventurous. What am I talking about eating? Snails, of course.
I have written a few articles extolling the virtues of bush tucker because it’s plentiful and easy to find. But not everyone may be motivated enough to eat crickets, locusts, and other creepy crawlies. However, slugs and snails are a bit different, because they more resemble limpets or whelks. So if you have a liking for seafood, you won’t find them too unpalatable.
Slugs (which are essentially snails without their shells) and snails are a rich source of nutrients, for they are high in both protein and minerals. Also, because they are easy to source (in most locations) and prepare, they make one of the best survival foods.
I am sure the gardeners amongst us will be familiar with this creature. These ‘homeless’ gastropods, typified by their black rubber-like bodies covered in a mucous coating, live mainly in the soil and wreak havoc in gardens. Their mouth has a rasp-like radula (tongue) and chitinised jaw, which they use to munch through succulent green plants. Slugs will also eat carrion and fungi.
Although generally regarded as being shell-less, many slug species do have a reduced internal shell. One such species is the earthworm-eating slug of the family Testacellidae. The two remaining slug groups are called Roundbacks and Keeled slugs.
Roundbacks, such as the common garden slug, have dome-shaped bodies, while Keeled slugs have a keel, or ridge running along their back. The Keeled slugs are the larger members, reaching anywhere up to 20-23cm in length.
The retractable tentacles on the head are the organs by which the slug smells, making them able to detect food several metres away.
Shelled gastropod molluscs occur in the oceans, in freshwater, and on land. Those that have lost their gills and breathe air are the easiest to identify and, in respect of this article, are typically the most important to us.
The snail’s shell is essentially made from calcium and is a hollow cone shape spiralling around a hollow central column. Their body is in a bag-like structure with only the head and ‘foot’ visible at any one time.
In effect, the head is an extension of the foot and identified by two pairs of tentacles. The mucous coating, left by the foot, acts as a lubricant to enable the animal to move easily over surfaces.
Like slugs, snails also have a radula tongue for rasping away at tender young plants, making them a great nuisance to the green-fingered gardeners amongst us. Although essentially vegetarian, some snails are carnivorous and feed on earthworms and even other snails.
It should go without saying, only living slugs and snails should be harvested. Any that smell bad should be discarded. Do not assume that a snail that is not moving is dead. Generally, snails are nocturnal and sleep during the day.
Hibernating snails can also be eaten, providing the seal around the shell entrance is intact and not receding; receding seals are an indication that the snail is either dead or in the last throes of life.
Avoid collecting individuals which are feeding on, or are in the local area of, poisonous plants or fungi. Slugs and snails can process the toxins in these plants/fungi, but if we were to eat the slug/snail it could cause us serious problems. Cooking does not always render the individual harmless.
How to cook them
The traditional way of cooking snails is to boil them in water and eat them like limpets and mussels. However, they can also be cooked in the embers of a fire or even fried. Whatever you do, do NOT eat them raw.
Although the snails you may find in the wild will be smaller than the large white snail (Gros blanch) eaten in France, the snail inside the shell is almost the same size. And, I must admit, better tasting.
All slugs and snails should have their stomachs purged to remove anybody waste or any toxic plant compounds present. As I have mentioned, both are likely to eat plants which are harmless to them, but dangerous to us.
Purging can be achieved by either soaking the animal in salty water for about 24 hours or feeding them a diet of harmless plants or bread crumbs. If you can source a strong herb, purge them on this as it will infuse into their flesh and give them a more palatable taste.
To cook slugs and snails, plunge them in boiling water and boil for eight to 10 minutes. Be careful not to put too many in the pot at a time, as the water tends to froth up and will spill over. The frothing is caused by the slime the slug/snail produces, often as a result of it being removed from its natural environment.
Taste can be enhanced by adding a strong herb such as wild garlic or mint. The foot itself may be slightly rubbery, but the rest of the snail is quite soft and tender.
Another way of cooking snails and slugs is to wrap them in a non-toxic leaf with a few herbs and a drop of water. Cover the leaf in wet mud and cook in hot coals for 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the number and size of snails. Because the snails are cooked in their own juices, they don’t lose that ‘meaty’ taste as they do with boiling.
If you want a gradual introduction to eating bush food, slugs and snails may be the answer. Granted, they can be a bit like chewing a piece of rubber but are very palatable. And just imagine how much you would be paying for them in a swanky restaurant.