Snails might be slow but they are winning a race in Lancashire as the county’s first ever snail farm has just announced its debut into the foodie scene.
The little creatures are a delicacy on the Continent but in the UK, where they are seen as common garden inhabitants, they are generally regarded with suspicion if they end up on a platter.
But for John Rowe, 50, who has spent much of his working life in Spain, the chance to play a part in bringing them to the UK is too good an opportunity to miss.
And John is one of dozens of food producers contributing to the burgeoning £4.3bn county tourist economy.
Anna Izza, head of communications at Marketing Lancashire, says that its businesses such as L’Escargotiere which are helping to serve up the Lancashire food scene to the rest of the UK with a flourish.
She said: “We launched the Taste Lancashire campaign back in 2016 with the aim of increasing awareness of Lancashire’s hard-to-beat food and drink offer and to establish Lancashire as a must-visit destination for food lovers.
I lived in Spain was used to eating snails. You can have them with garlic, they go with bolognese and basil.
“Over 67 million visitors come to Lancashire each year, making a £4.13bn contribution to the local economy. Food and drink is integral to that visitor experience and over the last couple of years their awareness of the provenance of Lancashire’s producers, the expertise and creativity of our chefs and the abundance of places to enjoy our food and drink culture has been raised by the activities of the Taste Lancashire campaign.
“With food events such as the upcoming Taste Lancashire market at the National Festival of Making in Blackburn this May to a pop-up Lancashire Day restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, with some of the county’s finest chefs and Taste Lancashire presentations in New York, Australia and Europe, the campaign has been championing the county’s food and drink locally, nationally and internationally and will continue to do so.
“Our food and drink success is built on the innovation, dedication and passion of producers like Taste Lancashire members L’Escargotiere, a new Ribble Valley snail farm, already supplying many leading restaurants or Cedar Farm-based chocolatier Choc Amor, currently flying the Taste Lancashire flag in Colombia.
“Their fantastic work here and in their specialist marketplaces is helping to promote the Lancashire food scene to a much wider audience and attracting new interest and visitors to England’s tastiest county.”
John, who owns L’Escargotière at Backridge Farm in the Forest of Bowland with his business partner Leanne Aspinall, 30, began putting together his set up a little over two years ago.
Once the farm was complete he then spent a year building his stock of snails up, breeding and feeding them before he launched the creatures into the marketplace.
He said: “I read an article about the nutritional value of snails and from that I started reading their history and how the Roman Emperor fed his army on them and how they are a super food and I just got more and more interested.
“I realised that they are not on the menu in regular restaurants in the UK and I thought to myself there could be a niche in the market here.”
John has supplied 140 odd restaurants with snails in the last 12 months and is in discussion with a distributor for regular orders.
“Snails are mainly a starter or on a specials board,” says John.
“Michelin restaurants change the menu every three months.
“If we go to Delifresh they are looking a picking us up every Monday and Friday. It’s just going to take us to another level.
“Two years ago everyone thought I was crazy.”
So what was it which piqued John’s interest in snails, cousins to the octopus of all creatures?
“They go back 500 million years, there have been fossils found,” says John. “They survived everything.
“They are very nutritious, with a very high protein content, low in fat and lots of vitamins and minerals such as Amino acids which are good for muscle growth and very expensive.
“Wherever the Roman army went they had a snail farm to feed the troops. Italy is actually the biggest consumer of snails, everybody thinks its France but its bigger in Italy - 44 million tonnes of snails were produced in Italy last year.
“I lived in Spain was used to eating snails. You can have them with garlic, they go with bolognese and basil.
“We actually do a snail soup, snail burgers and snail wrap. We are going to mix them with venison at the Northern Shooting Show in Harrogate in May.
“I just eat them with everything. I like them wrapped in pancetta bacon with bolognese sauce. They go with polenta as well.”
Although John already knew how he liked to eat snails he has learnt a lot about how to farm them since establishing what he affectionately calls his “snail ranch”.
“They are underneath pens,” says John. “The netting is 1.5 metres high and 30 metres long and they’ve got flaps but they’re designed so the snails can’t crawl out of the flap and can’t escape.
“We have two acres of land at the moment but we are looking to expand.
“We keep them in the field throughout the summer season but in the winter snails go into hibernation because they’ve not got enough food.
“So when the winter is coming we start taking them out of the field and we purge them, starving them for seven days. This forces them into hibernation then we put them into a fridge.
“We always wake them up before we cut them in case they have died. Do they scream before we cut them? No they don’t.”
This year the weather has thrown up some problems for John, namely the snow preventing him from bringing his snails out of hibernation.
He says: “After the snow melted all of our fields were flooded so we had to put drains in.
“Before it was cattle land and they could walk in puddles but my snails, they can’t have any puddles around.
“It’s good it’s happened now - they were all in the fridge at the time. Some of them died but they do survive because they survive in nature on their own. When there’s frost they bury themselves to get away from the cold.”
As well as producing snails for restaurants John hopes to welcome visits from schoolchildren and also plans to open up at Deli serving up mouth-watering jars of l’escargot with a range of different sauces, snail salami and snail paté.