Last Christmas for the first time we hosted the Christmas dinner for my husband’s family. It was as fraught as is traditional for such events, with gossip, miscommunication and denied expectations all over the place. Part of the problem is that I am rather a disappointment to them, not being oriented towards material wealth and having all these strange beliefs like girls should be allowed to wear colours other than pink. (Don’t get me wrong, I like wealth. I just perceive wealth as being something other than an oversized, badly designed, hard-to-clean house and a job at the bank.) So, because my husband is not a woman and therefore not going to be perceived as having any responsibility for the Christmas dinner (that’s the wife and mother’s job exclusively), I thought long and hard about how we were going to construct a dinner that fit their (to my mind ridiculous) traditional ideas about what a Christmas meal should be while still being in keeping with our approach and methods. In particular, how not to spend all of Christmas Day with the oven on. A good plan as it happened, seeing as Christmas Day turned out to be the first heatwave of secondsummer. My sister-in-law kept voting for a tofurkey, but she was going to be in Holland with her in-laws so I didn’t count her vote. We went with buying a roasting-barbeque and cooking a turkey in it outside. That seemed to fit the provision of traditional foods while allowing a sense of “things don’t always have to be exactly this way”. Especially as barbequing is in Australian culture traditionally a man’s job, so suddenly it was clearly my husband preparing Christmas dinner with me in the support role.
Knowing that the event was likely to be problematic, I admit there was much temptation to be as “way-out” as possible as a kind of revenge for having to be nice. I did have to keep focused on trying to build cooperation and a sharing of ideas rather than foisting our little differences in my in-laws’ faces. The temptation to really push the envelope has always been strong for me, and it’s strongest when up against people who believe “it just shouldn’t be done that way”. But my own family’s Christmases have always been held at pleasant times of day, with food we all enjoy and can eat (mostly vegetarian), that nobody has to be locked away for hours to prepare. The meals are relaxed and informal, the food is flavourful, simple, and suited to summer weather. So when I was having garden troubles with snails and a friend said “just eat them”, my mind went straight to thoughts of a beautiful garlicky pasta dish on the Christmas table.
Wisdom prevailed over experimentation, I confess, and Christmas dinner remained traditional-English-protein-only. But I did look into it, and it was a much more feasible idea than I first thought. Turns out that our common garden snail here in Australia, which I knew was a feral snail from Europe, is THE snail from Europe, Helix aspersa. All those big fat snails we see around here in firstspring would fetch quite a good price for a dozen in the restaurant market. By the time I’d looked into it though it was too late. The snails are very active in firstspring but begin to aestivate in secondspring. They basically go to sleep when the weather starts to dry up, it’s triggered by humidity levels, and in secondspring the rain is more erratic and the air warmer so the humidity drops a lot. So harvesting snails from your garden has a clear window, and it’s right about now in Perth. I’m tossing up whether to get myself organised and do it.
There are some basics to follow if you want to try this at home. First, make sure the snails are coming from somewhere that doesn’t use snail baits. Snails do move around, they can cover up to 25 metres in a day, and they do tend to visit the same places over and over again (they remember how to find tasty spots). So make sure your neighbours also haven’t snailbaited. Second, go snail hunting at dawn and dusk. Like kangaroos, snails are crepuscular – they’re most active in early mornings and evenings, with quiet patches during the day and during the middle of the night. Third, you need to harvest the snails at least a week before you cook them, and keep them in a box or terrarium for the week, feeding them only human-friendly vegetation. Like lettuce, carrot tops, silverbeet. There are many plants that snails can eat that we can’t, and you want to make sure that all of those have finished passing through the snail’s digestive tract. That terrarium should have breathing holes low as well as high, be at least a hand-span or 20 cm deep, and have a lid so that the snails can’t get out (they will try). I’m told finding your dinner wandering around the dining room walls is a bit disconcerting.
Of course, if you don’t want to eat the snails and just want to watch them, you can do that too. There are plenty of how-tos around on building a more permanent terrarium to keep snails in – for instance, here, here and here.
I’ve mentioned before that I have a particular interest in urban-farming-suitable forms of protein. The most obvious and common ones around are chickens and eggs, followed by rabbits and fish (via aquaponics). Heliculture, or snail farming, is a more radical possibility but which might lend itself well to urban situations. Humans have certainly used snails as a protein source for a long time. There’s a bit of info around on snail farming in Australia, both in intensive farming (200 snails / metre squared in small pens) and in open-space free-range farming (snails roaming freely through a garden of greens). And other options between. If I can bring myself to try it for my own use, I might consider this as one way to make a suburban block commercially productive. And even if I don’t go commercial, harvesting the snails for my own table would certainly save my kangaroo paws in firstspring.
Some more entertaining reading on snail farming from around the world:
Snails lead Cliff down the gourmet path (Sunshine Coast)
Suicide danger on the snail farm (Italy)
The potential of snail farming (Poland)