How To Grow Happy Snails In A Greenhouse
Taylor Knapp is one of just a few snail farmers certified by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certification is crucial, he said. “Otherwise you’re just kind of a guy with some snails.”
He is the owner of Peconic Escargot, located in Cutchogue on Long Island’s North Fork, and home to about 70,000 petit gris snails.
Mr. Knapp is a chef by training, and while working at Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen, he became interested in foraging. He eventually settled on Long Island with his wife, Katelyn, and cooked at several restaurants on the North Fork before he decided to follow his dream. He would become a snail wrangler.
When he started, there was no snail-farming protocol in the United States, so he worked with the U.S.D.A. for several years to develop one, building the greenhouse from a mail-order kit, and opening his farm in July of 2017. Since then, Mr. Knapp’s snails have been prepared by noteworthy restaurants in New York like Eleven Madison Park.
Mr. Knapp often serves his snails at his pop-up dinners, called Paw Paw, which are scheduled next for April 13, April 20, May 4 and May 18 at the restaurant Bruce & Son in Greenport.
This is an edited and condensed version of a recent conversation with him.
Q. Why would anyone farm snails?
A. I love snails, I love eating them, and I thought, “Let’s put a snail dish on the menu.” So I tried to find a snail farm and I couldn’t find anyone. It was like a light bulb.
How do you grow happy snails?
The greenhouse is a comfortable environment. In the summer, I spray the snails down to help them maintain their moisture. In the winter, I’m sorting and cleaning. But the snails are pretty self-sufficient. It’s kind of like beekeeping, where they’re doing what they’re doing, and they’ll need a little bit of help now and then.
What was your model? Where are most of the snail farms?
I learned by reading articles and through a lot of trial and error. I haven’t had the chance to visit other farms. Most snail farms in Europe are sprawling outdoor farms. I’m more interested in smaller indoor operations because I have to work with U.S.D.A. containment restrictions. There are some farmers in Europe, in Ireland and England, and even in Australia, who I talk to every now and then to see how they’re doing it, but they have that outdoor set up so they can only be so helpful.
What is a snail’s life cycle?
Snails are hermaphrodites, and they lay eggs. Once they go into their breeding season, they’ll bury their eggs into the dirt, two inches or so, and deposit the eggs out of this hole in the back of their neck. The clutch is 50 to 100 eggs. They’ll come back out of the hole and cover it up with the dirt and some mucus and they’re done. There’s no mothering instinct, they don’t hang out and wait for the eggs to hatch. In about two weeks, the baby snails will crawl up out of the soil.
What do you feed snails? Does the diet affect their flavor?
The terroir greatly affects the flavor. We’ve got Long Island soil in the bins and they eat the dirt to build their shells. We actually grind up the old shells from snails that we have processed and mix it with the soil because it’s a great calcium supplement.
In the spring through the fall we do a lot of foraging. We’ll go out and pick dandelion and mugwort and burdock and clover and all of these wild greens in the nearby woods and that’s what we’re feeding them.
And when they are ready for processing, we move them off the dirt and go into empty bins and they just eat herbs and some spent grain from Greenport Harbor Brewery. It’s malted barley that we grind to a fine flour and we finish them on that. It purges their digestive system and lends a kind of nutty toastiness to the herbaceous flavor. We are selling the entire animal, like an oyster or a clam.
Did you think about selling them already cooked?
When we started this business, we planned to sell them cooked, by the pound. And then we saw the finished product. I was holding this sad-looking cooked snail and I thought, “This is not good.” If I was a chef, and this is what someone was bringing to me, I wouldn’t be happy with this. So we had to re-evaluate the whole thing and figure out how to process them raw.
I assume they are not alive when they are delivered.
Our devitalization process is proprietary so I can’t really discuss it, but it is very humane.
Escargot is famously a French delicacy. How do Americans feel about eating snails?
The Italians, the Spanish, are big-time snail eaters, even more than the French. But Americans are coming around. Some people have only had them on cruise ships. I don’t know how the cruise ship industry picked up escargot and stuck with it for years, but they are still serving escargot on cruise ships and that’s where most people have experienced it, with garlic and butter.
Who was your first customer?
One of our earliest supporters was Greg Ling, a chef at Industry Standard Bar in Greenport at the time. That was an eye-opening experience. I expected him to come back with a garlic butter snail dish and instead he prepared a wonton and a ramen and he did a stir-fry with Chinese sausage.
We realized right then that, holy cow, this can be anything you want it to be. It can taste like a mushroom, with a very earthy kind of umami flavor, and the texture is like a clam. We could walk into any restaurant no matter what they are serving and explain to them that this is going to work. It’s a new protein.
Do you have any competition? Are there other snail farmers?
There is one other small-scale snail farmer that I know of in Washington State. He runs a pretty small operation and sells to a few restaurants in the Seattle area. Everyone else sells live or cooked snails but we sell them raw, so restaurants can season and cook them however they want.
What’s your favorite way to prepare snails?
They are at their best when they are cooked very quickly and gently. They plump up, they’re nice and juicy, and they’ve got the mouth feel of any other shellfish that you eat, like a clam, mussel or an oyster.