Recipe: Escargot des Jardin

In the sitcom Frasier, it was put to Niles, brother of Frasier and fellow snob, that he’d eat a worm if it had a French name. Niles, I imagine, would rather like this dish: ‘escargot des jardin’ — or less pretentiously, garden snails.

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The scrumptious garden snail

They’re a free delicacy known to so few. Coming straight out of your garden, they’re fresh and delicious, and no different to what you’d buy in the snootiest French restaurant.

I know what you’re thinking, aren’t they dangerous to eat? Well, they can be if you just boil them straight from the garden. Some preparation is needed first.

Find a container, such as a bucket or biscuit tin, and place a heavy and/or secure lid on top, punctured with several air holes. (I’ve read that someone else ingeniously used tights over a bucket to keep them in, if you want an alternative.) The point is that snails are remarkably strong creatures who can together easily topple a light or unsecured lid. They can lift nearly ten times their their body weight.

Once you’ve found something suitable, go round your garden and collect all the snails you can find. You’re best off hunting in the wee hours of the morning or late at night. Otherwise, wait for after a rainfall and the snails will diffidently emerge. Big ones are obviously the best, but small ones are equally as tasty. Remember, though, that different sizes will require different cooking times, so its best to keep them all rather similar.

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I was surprised at how viciously they ate the carrot

You have to clean them out with a healthy diet. You can choose a variety of things: lettuce, cabbage, oregano etc. It is a good idea to feed them something colourful — literally. You can tell when they’re cleaned out by the colour of their poo. Carrot is good for this reason, though any green vegetable is equally good. (Just don’t mix green and orange, that’d make brown, a mistake I made.) Snails retain the flavour of what they eat, so it’s a good idea to think carefully about what you’re feeding the little buggers.

Cleaning will take four or five days. After that, starve them for a couple more days until they stop pooing (they poo copiously). Make sure you wash the snails and their container every so often, and especially at the end. Oh, and keep a damp layer of water in the container; they like that.

Now the snails are ready to be killed and cooked. Boil them for 5-10 minutes and drain. (They die instantly.) Then get one of those dinky forks, or a skewer or something similar, and pull out the snail meat from the shell. This should be easy. But if it isn’t happening, you can just break the shell.

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The snails, yanked from their shells.

You can eat the whole snail, from the foot to the gut. Many recipes tell you to cut parts off but this is little more than baseless habit or personal taste. However, if anything does look off, feel free to cut it off. I keep all the meat, however, especially for the guts — the tastiest part.

Here’s where it gets interesting. You can do anything you want here: boil, fry, oven-cook, grill, so on. I boiled them first for half an hour to soften the texture and gently fried them with rosemary, chilli and garlic for a crispy, oily outer layer. Then served with some rice. Delicious. (You could also cook a large patch and freeze them.)

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A sort of escargot risotto, quickly made. Excuse the poor presentation.

What a bargain? I didn’t even have to leave the house. And if we do indeed hit another recession in Britain, well at least you and I can now save on the food bills.

Two Recipes for the Impoverished Middle Classes

If, like me, you enjoy cooking and eating well but face severe budgetary constrictions, look no further. I am, I’m afraid to say, too much of aspiring snob to live off tins of baked beans and sweetcorn. And so I’ve had to learn how to be pretentious on a budget — and you can too.

A note: I can’t give you precise measurements. The recipes are very flexible and an extra tomato here or another clove of garlic there doesn’t particularly matter. I personally subscribe to the Keith Floyd method, also known as Organised Chaos, and indeed this laissez-faire attitude is easier with a bottle of something to hand.

Game Sausage Ragu

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Venison ragu, imperfectly presented — my basil arrangement is scandalous — but nevertheless rather delicious

I know what you’re thinking: game’s expensive, is it not? Well, not with this recipe.  5 or 6 portions will only cost you £4.10-£5 in total.

What you’ll need:

  • 6 game sausages £2.50 (I recommend the venison or wild boar sausages that are available at many supermarkets)
  • 1 onion £0.30
  • 2 cloves of garlics £0.30 for the entire bulb
  • 1 whole tin of chopped tomatoes £0.50
  • Tomatoe puree £0.50
  • Few teaspoons of salt
  • (Optional: sweet peppers £0.90)
  • (Optional: parmigiano £2.30, but will keep you going for weeks)
  • (Optional: basil £1 for a pot, and if you look after it expect a month-long lifespan at least)

Method:

  1. Decase all 6 sausages by running a knife through the casing and sliding it off. Then mix the sausage meat together into one big lump.
  2. Add a small bit of oil to a pan and bring to medium heat. While waiting, chop up the onion, garlic and/or peppers.
  3. Fry the sausage meat, onions and/or peppers, stirring and stabbing frequently to make sure the meat breaks up.
  4. When the meat looks about cooked, or nearly there, add the garlic for a minute.
  5. Empty the chopped tomatoes and tomato puree into the pan, along with whatever you happen to be drinking (I recommend a cheap, supermarket-brand rich cream sherry).
  6. Season with salt, turn down to simmer and leave for an hour or two (though checking on the ragu every so often to make sure it doesn’t dry out).
  7. Whenever you’re ready, serve the ragu or separate it out into single portions and freeze in little tuppelware boxes or freezer bags. (Or refridgerate; it will last a few days.)

Polenta

This isn’t a recipe so much as a remarkably cheap (and long-lasting) alternative to potato. Polenta is a cornmeal-like substance originating among the peasants of Italy. But like all peasant food, we middle classes have long since appropriated it. One bag is about £1, and out of it I reckon you can get a dozen meals worth, maybe more.

You boil the polenta until it thickens into a doughy texture, mixing in various ingredients to suit your needs. Then either serve it straight away or let it cool and harden so that you can fry it or even make it into a cake. (It’s also perfectly fine to freeze in batches.)

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A quick polenta snack

You could be rustic and just add butter and salt, then cut it up in chunks and fry them off as polenta ‘chips’. For that extra je ne sais quoi, I like to serve the chips in a separate bowl and delicately sprinkle rosemary and parmigiano on top of them.

(A sidenote: never buy rosemary. You can pinch a spring from virtually anywhere, be it outside a train station or in some poor chap’s front garden.)

A favourite recipe of mine is to mix in butter, dill, thyme, parsley, and whatever else needs using up and serve it straight off of the boil as creamy polenta. There’s no need to be shy in adding ingredients, for the taste of polenta alone is quite unremarkable.

Of course one doesn’t eat polenta by itself. If frying polenta, you could also fry off some sausages, peppers and onions too. Or you could purchase from Iceland their exceptionally good ostrich fillets, priced at only £1.75 a fillet. When particularly desperate, I may just fry off chicken thighs with various vegetables.

You could do something similar with creamy polenta, or you could serve it with the above-described ragu in place of pasta, so long as whatever you’ve put in the polenta compliments the ragu.

And if all else fails, start watching Posh Nosh as soon as possible: