Four years ago, Taylor Knapp had never tasted a fresh snail, but he figured they had to be better than canned.
At the time, Knapp was the executive chef at First and South in Greenport. He knew little about farming and less about heliciculture (raising snails for food). Nevertheless, he decided to establish a snail farm in Cutchogue. He named it Peconic Escargot.
“As an ingredient, escargots have gone in and out of fashion,” he said. “But around here, they have never been fresh, and they’ve never been local. I wanted to bring back a lost food, and make it better.”
In fact, fresh snails are a rarity in the United States, especially on the East Coast. The vaunted French variety petit gris had been brought to the West in the 19th century, and in California and the Pacific Northwest there are a handful of farms and foragers who collect them in the wild. But in the East, chefs have relied on canned snails, often imported from Asia.
Since he started selling the snails in June, East End chefs have embraced them. At Industry Standard in Greenport, Greg Ling has been tossing them in ramen and wrapping them in wontons. At Almond in Bridgehampton, Jason Weiner serves them in the shell with a bowl of sriracha aioli.
No one has been happier to welcome snails into his kitchen than Christian Mir, chef-owner of Stone Creek in East Quogue. Mir, a native of Toulouse, France, grew up eating and cooking fresh snails but, until now, had no alternative to canned.
“Oh my god, the fresh ones are so different,” he said. “The flavor is nutty and mild, but it’s all about the texture. The ones in the can are rubbery, but the fresh ones melt in your mouth.”
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A SNAIL
Between the East End and New York City, Knapp is selling 3,000 snails a week. This out of a “herd” of 11,000, all of whom are housed in a 30-by-10-foot greenhouse on land leased from Peconic Land Trust.
Inside the greenhouse, the snails live in shallow plastic boxes that are stacked on plastic shelves. Most of the boxes are spread with earth, on top of which is a variety of foraged greens (garlic mustard, clover, wild carrot, Queen Anne’s lace) that would be at home in a local salad. The snails sit on the dirt or languidly inch their way forward on the leaves, stretching their little tentacled heads out for a munch. They’re not above eating a little dirt, too. To lay eggs, they burrow into the dirt and remain there for 24 hours. (Eventually, Knapp plans to sell the eggs, which he calls “snail caviar.” Experiments are underway.)
After about eight months, the opening of the shell, called the mantle, develops a small lip, and this means the snail has reached maturity. But if it were eaten now, it would taste like the dirt it’s been living on. So it is moved to another box for “purging.” These boxes are clean, except for a row of wheat flour down the center. Yes, these “grass-fed” snails are finished on grain, and after a week in the tiny feed lot, the snails are ready for processing. The boxes are packed into Knapp’s Ford Focus and driven to the Stony Brook University business incubator in Calverton.
The incubator, established in 2012, provides commercial kitchen space for Long Island food businesses. The details of Knapp’s process are proprietary, but once they are “devitalized” (the USDA’s term for killed), he and his wife, Katelyn, park themselves at one of the stainless-steel work counters and start picking through the snails. The loveliest of them are chosen to be packed in the shell; the rest are gently pulled from their helical homes. Then everything gets vacuum-packed and chilled.
Knapp pointed out that, whereas his snails contain the entire animal — the foot, the head and the bit containing its internal organs that is coiled inside the shell — canned snails are really only the part of the animal that protrudes from the shell. “It’s like the difference between clam strips and whole belly clams,” he said.
THE CONTAINMENT RANCH
Because the petit gris snail (species: Cornu aspersum) is not native to the East Coast, Knapp couldn’t simply round up a bunch of them, throw them into a garden and collect them as they naturally reproduced. There’s always a danger that a nonnative species introduced to a new environment will become a pest (see Northern snakehead fish), and snails present a special danger because they are hermaphrodites — each snail has both male and female sex organs, so any two can hook up and make more snails. (On occasion, they can even be autogamous. Or, as Knapp put it, “usually you need two snails, but one could do it on his own, too.”)
Farming a nonnative invasive species requires federal supervision, but because the U.S. Department of Agriculture had never been called upon to oversee a snail farm, Knapp had to work closely with the agency to come up with plan for snail containment.
The goal was to make sure the snails did not escape. (Go ahead, make a joke about snails fleeing under cover of night; Knapp’s heard them all.) The security system begins with a 10-foot perimeter around the greenhouse. It is free of vegetation and laced with snail bait. “If a snail made it out,” Knapp said, “it would eat the bait and die.”
The shelving must be a foot away from the wall, and the feet of the shelving units stand in pans of saltwater (which would kill any snail that fell in). The floor is made of sealed cement, and every vent is covered with a mesh screen (“to keep the smallest babies from escaping”). Knapp is vigilant about sealing seams or tears. “At this point,” he says, “the greenhouse is basically made of caulk.”
THE SNAIL WRANGLER
Although he started his company having never eaten a fresh snail, Knapp was gratified when he finally cooked up his first batch in 2015. “I pulled a few from the shell, poached them briefly in stock, then tossed them into a pan with butter to get a little sizzle. Then I deglazed the pan with a little vinegar, added some salt, and that was it.”
It was with no small measure of relief that Knapp enjoyed the dish. “The snails were fresh and bright. They had a clean, almost mushroomy flavor — it was an eye-opener.”
At that point, two years into the business, he left his job at First and South to become a full-time snail wrangler. To supplement his income and keep a hand in the kitchen, he also orchestrates pop-up dinners (often featuring snails) at Bruce & Son in Greenport, and he is corporate chef at Koppert Cress USA, the state-of-the-art microgreens greenhouse operation in Cutchogue.
After four years, Knapp considers himself an advanced beginner. There are no local helicicultural traditions he can draw on, no Journal of American Snail Farming he can subscribe to. “I’m still experimenting a lot,” he said, “but, I’d be sad if I’d reached the pinnacle already with nothing more to learn about snails.”
GET YOUR SNAILS HERE
Right now, Peconic Escargot’s snails show up regularly on the menus of Industry Standard, Salamander’s and Bruce & Son in Greenport, Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue, Almond in Bridgehampton, with more coming on line every week. You can follow the snails’ progress on Instagram at @peconic_escargot. If you want to give them a try at home, they can be ordered from peconicescargot.com or by calling 855-2-ESCARGOT. Because they are highly perishable, they are shipped only via FedEx Overnight. One pound of shelled snails is $65, four dozen in the shell are $36 (plus shipping charges). They also can be purchased at Village Cheese Shop in Mattituck.