Even if you love eating snails, it is possible that you have never given much thought to the way they live.
Maybe you assume that they are weak and slow, enduring lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau once described the bulk of humanity. If so, Mary Stewart, a snail rancher whose mollusks are sought after by top chefs all over the country, will not hesitate to set you straight.
“They are the loudest, noisiest munchers you’ve ever heard,” she said.
Chefs at restaurants like Tertulia and Vinegar Hill House in New York, Moto in Chicago and the Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle cook with her snails because of the care she puts into cultivating and cleaning them. That attention to detail fosters tenderness, an absence of grit and a fresh taste with, at times, a very slight note of basil.
But it’s hard to imagine what it actually means to care for snails unless you visit Stewart, who lives in a mobile home in this agricultural area north of Bakersfield, Calif. To raise delicious snails, you apparently have to know what makes them tick, and Stewart, 64, has spent a couple of decades educating herself.
She has learned that snails can move a lot faster than their reputation would suggest, especially when they pick up the lure of food. Spray them with mist, give them some crisp lettuce and “here they come, just like cows at feeding time,” she said. “You can hear them munching and crunching just like cattle. I’m serious. They’re fascinating. And they’re so strong.”
“These puppies can really push,” she said. Don’t expect to contain them in, say, a box with a screen set on top. “If enough of them get up in the corner, they can actually push that screen loose.”
Although she lives far away from any nexus of fine dining, results of Stewart’s labor (and suffering) can be found on many ambitious menus.
Nathan Myhrvold, the man behind the “Modernist Cuisine” cookbooks, has cooked with her snails. At Moto, in Chicago, chef de cuisine Richie Farina – using branches that he collects in the nearby woods – places the snails in a row so they appear to be crawling up the stick in a tangle of wild mushrooms, edible flowers, a variety of greens and a garlic-herb “moss.” In a less theatrical mode, Brian Leth, the chef at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, pairs the snails with olive-oil-poached baby artichokes on flatbread.
“It’s not an ingredient I would ever cook with unless I could get something of this quality,” Leth said.
Cornered the market
Many chefs catch word about Stewart’s snails through a distributor, Mikuni Wild Harvest, a Seattle-based company that started nine years ago to bring foraged foods to cooks. (Through its website, Mikuni sells partly precooked shipments of the snails for $39.75 a pound.) Tyler Gray, one of the company’s founders, said the sales representatives tap into Stewart’s snail lore to help get chefs intrigued.
“She’s a pretty eccentric woman – and in love with her snails,” he said. “She is one of these people who are so passionate about what they do that it can’t help but be infectious.”
It also doesn’t hurt that she may have cornered the market.
“If chefs are not using Mary’s fresh snails, then they are most likely using a canned product from France,” Gray said.
Stewart is flattered whenever she hears of another chef getting on board (“It’s gratifying to know that my product is wanted and appreciated,” she said) even if she’s more inclined to heat up her mollusks in Pepperidge Farm pastry shells with some shallots, parsley and sweet butter.
She owes her induction into the snail realm to an epiphany. It came in 1981 when she picked up the food section of The Bakersfield Californian and saw a headline: “Escargot . . . Watch Them Go!” Stewart read the accompanying recipes, and something clicked.
The idea of eating snails did not seem unusual to a woman whose childhood was spent in the bayous of Arkansas.
“I was raised in the South, honey, and let me tell you, we grew up on red squirrel, venison, frog’s legs,” she said. “We were dirt poor. The one thing I’ve never eaten is possum. When I saw the article, to me the recipes sounded good. I’d never eaten snails, but I wanted to try them.”
After a while, she realized that she was surrounded by the very bumper crop she longed for: The garden snails known as Helix aspersa roamed free throughout the orchards of the Central Valley, and were viewed as leaf-munching pests.
European settlers are believed to have originally brought this invasive species to America as food – so couldn’t Stewart make use of them? She sought the advice of experts, including an entomology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and in 1989 began a career as a snail rancher.
“It took at least, I’d say, 15 years to learn how to raise them and grow them and get the job done right,” she said. “Because there were really no books on it.”
Snails may come across as barely sentient, but over time Stewart learned that they are highly sensitive. They get claustrophobic. Pen up too many in a tight space, and they start to slide into panic-induced die-offs. “The secret of raising snails?” she went on. “Snails do what they want to do when they want to do it. As soon as I feel like I really know snails well, they’ll turn around and do something I’ve never seen them do before.”
After holding court for a while, Stewart got up from her chair and walked over to a refrigerator. She grabbed a glass jar and poured its shiny, slithering contents into a bowl.
“You’re welcome to taste some, if you want,” she said. “Escargot caviar!”
“The snail caviar is really cool,” said Gray of Mikuni. “There is no one else in North America who’s doing that.”