Gastronomically I’ve been fairly adventurous in my life, writes Anne Cox. I’ve eaten horse and frogs’ legs in France, enjoyed a kangaroo burger, stir-fried snake and ostrich stew. Fishy-wise I’ve fallen in love with shark steaks but found deep fried locusts too dry and crunchy.
But I’ve always drawn the line at anything slimy. Oozy food was a no no, and that normally means anything in a shell.
Woburn’s oyster festival has held no appeal, my father’s attempts at getting me to eat his favourite – jellied eels (granted not in a shell but equally slippery) – fell flat and I’ve never been impressed with the whole cockle, mussel, winkle brigade.
So it was with a measure of reluctance that I accepted an invitation on Wednesday to Paris House, Woburn, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the region, to the launch of a new product that head chef Phil Fanning was determined that I should enjoy.
Forever game (why do I do it, I ask myself?) I took up the gauntlet and was determined that I would sample (gulp) a snail – with its unformed offspring. I felt like I was to undergo one of those bushtucker challenges on I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!
Eating snails was one thing –but eat their eggs? Well, would you?
Only this week a national survey found that snails were Britain’s number one foodie nightmare, topping the list of stomach turning foods (closely followed by tripe – another horror – oysters, squid and anchovies).
But Sophie Wharton fell in love with the slimy little critters as a child and launched Aylesbury Escargot in a polytunnel a couple of years ago with the backing of her husband Mike. They now have more than one million Helix Aspersa Maxima, cousins of the common garden snail, who live the Life of Riley before dying “on the job”.
They are only one of four snail farms in the UK and the only one cultivating Escargot pearls – which, to you and me, are snail eggs – for the luxury market. Heston Blumenthal has used them in his signature dishes and now, thanks to the product launch at Paris House, they will be used in Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Britain.
The only place to buy them will be in Fortum and Masons, in London, who signed up the couple after sampling the exclusive caviar – which sells for more than regular caviar – with me on Wednesday.
The Whartons are passionate about their little friends and have even visited a snail college in France where students can take a three-year degree course in escargot management!
Back in Aylesbury the snails, led by Giant George, the 59g (2oz) super stud snail, live in air-conditioned comfort. Each evening they are woken up with a hearty meal of especially created biscuits and milk, they are given mood lighting and classical music to enjoy (their favourite apparently) before they get down to business. The boys often target their mate for the night by firing a love dart into her which joins the two together. The breeding snails will then enjoy nightly romps producing about two kilos of eggs every four days until they pop their clogs in happy exhaustion after about four years.
One day Sophie turned up on the doorstep of Paris House with a sample of her wares and the chefs were smitten.
Phil, who played around with both the snail meat and caviar to create a range of exclusive dishes, told me: “Sophie turned up with a jar of raw eggs and we had a go frying them, baking them and curing them.
“They are a unique flavour. People think it’s a bit weird eating them but they’re much less offensive than fish eggs. They have a lovely mild, earthy flavour. I think people are intrigued rather than disgusted.”
On Wednesday Phil created a mouth-watering banquet of snail and fois gras pate with Iranian pistachio and figs followed by Ceviche of scallop with apple, thyme and snail caviar and barbecued Welsh Wagu with snail, bone marrow fricassee with a tarragon sauce. To drink there was a snail egg mojito!
Said Sophie: “There’s such a stigma about eating snails but if you can get past that they are tremendous. They are very nutritious. They are supposed to be aphrodisiacs and their snail slime is used both in face creams and in hospitals to aid the healing of scars.
“We are delighted that Fortnum and Masons will be stocking Escargot Pearls and we’re hoping that we will be able to expand the business next year into an outdoor snail farm.”
As for me? Yes, I braced myself and dived into the snaily canapes – snail meat and eggs combined with blue cheese, shallots and stock presented in little faux snail pastry cases...and they were delicious. As for the rest of the luncheon – I left that to the foodies.
For more information about Aylesbury Escargot go to www.aylesbury-escargot.co.uk