When Countryfile Magazine asked me to write about my favourite food experience, I had to think long and hard. From trawling for scallops off the coast of the Isle Of Man to fishing for mackerel in St Ives – I taste a lot of food while filming for Countryfile and we always do our best to chronicle local produce and harvesting methods.
For a food lover like me, tasting Britain’s produce is a perk of the job, and believe it or not, it can sometimes be life changing. For example, I never cared much for fish, but once I’d tasted fresh
line-caught mackerel, my fishy tendencies were changed forever. I could have gone with an obvious choice as my favourite food experience, but
the one that really stuck in my mind was slightly more unusual.
In winter 2010, I visited Helen Howard’s snail farm. When you think of the food of the Kent landscape, the Garden of England, you imagine tightly packed apple and cherry orchards, cobnuts and hop gardens. You wouldn’t necessarily think of Helix aspersa maxima – or the garden snail to you and me. But former geography teacher Helen is trying to change all that.
It’s thought the Romans introduced snails to Britain, although they’ve been part of the human diet across the world since at least 1,500BC. But despite other molluscs’ popularity, we’ve never quite caught on to the idea of eating snails. So is Helen bonkers to be farming snails in Kent?
She’s been doing it for just over five years,
after finding the idea on a farm diversification website. They’re an ideal crop for her because
they don’t need much land, don’t smell, don’t need chasing around with a dog and they don’t need big lorries to be transported across the country. There are only a tiny number of producers in the country, but Helen is keen to
see snails become a more popular dish in the UK. At any one time, she can have around 50,000 snails on the go.
When I visited, it was time to wake the snails from hibernation to fatten them up. At the time, they were in big opaque plastic storage boxes in Helen’s back bedroom. We woke up the little gastropods with some cold water and then prepared their lunch: their favourite powdered cereal, milk and chalk mix.
You can see the snails at their best at Helen’s Slow Summer Snail Farm at Brogdale Farm – you can even let one slide across your hand. Events in early summer include snail racing and a snail trail treasure hunt, but you can enjoy a snail experience right up until the first frosts of October. You can also learn about the lifecycle of the snail from egg to adult, and just how to start your own snaily smallholding.
It is estimated that global food demand could double by 2050 so, as the population explodes, we are understandably being encouraged to widen our tastes. So are escargot the way to go? Snails are a good source of protein, potassium and vitamin e. They also contain essential fatty acids and they’re low in calories (a 28g serving has only 25 calories). The downside is they are high in cholesterol and, in true snail fashion, they can be slow to arrive on your plate – they have to be sold alive due to food preparation regulations.
Helen’s snails are big news to local chefs and keen amateurs in the area so, ever hopeful of another mackerel moment, I was happy to try them. I prepared a snail and gorgonzola pizza with one of Helen’s customers. Honestly? Well,
the snails were cunningly overpowered by the potent blue cheese, and the crispy dough base disguised their texture. The real test will be whether I can cook with them regularly at home. I haven’t yet, but watch this space.
In beautiful surroundings
Before you settle down for a gastropod dinner, loop around the beautiful Kent countryside on a route that takes in orchards and woodlands, starting in the town of Faversham. From the bustling Market Place, head out of the town past the thatched cottages, towards the village of Ospringe. Look out for the oldest brewer in the country, Shepherd Neame, which grows more than 100 varieties of hops.
Pass through Painters Forstal, a village that’s worth a stop for cider lovers, surrounded by fruit orchards. Walk through beautiful woodland, home to many species of wildflowers. Now pass Whitehill and stop at Brogdale Farm, looking out for the allotment-sized patch that’s home to our shelled friends. From here, with any luck, the snail industry should start to gather some pace.
HOW TO GET THERE
Brogdale Farm is just outside Canterbury and can be reached via the M20, turning off at junction seven. Faversham railway station is one mile away from the farm and connects to London.
FIND OUT MORE
Faversham ME13 8XZ
01227 728 613
The Red Lion
Ashford Road, Badlesmere Lees
Traditional pub food just a mile from the snail farm.
Leaveland Court Farm B&B
01233 740 596
Traditional homely B&B.
Canterbury, CT1 2EH
01227 762 862
A world-famous cathedral with a 1,400 year history.