American Chefs Can't Import Live Snails, But Two Farms Found a Way Around That
Facing heavy restrictions, only a couple of escargot entrepreneurs are allowed to grow edible snails in the United States.
Taylor Knapp, a Long Island, New York chef, hadn't spent much time thinking about snails until he saw them on the menu at David Chang's Momofuku restaurant in New York City. When he asked someone where the snails had been sourced from, he was told that they'd come straight out of a can, albeit a can that had been imported from Europe.
"I was like, 'If chef David Chang can't get fresh snails then nobody can," Knapp told Northforker. "So there's obviously a need for this.'"
In the three years since he encountered those sad canned snails, Knapp has gotten way into snail farming—or heliciculture, if you're into Jeopardy! words—and he now owns and operates one of only two U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved snail-raising facilities in the United States. (The other is in Washington state).
Snails, even the edible ones, are considered to be invasive species, so the USDA has regulations about what can and can't be done with them—and there are a lot of can'ts. It's illegal for restaurants to import live snails for human consumption, which can be problematic for American chefs, since many commonly eaten snail varieties are found in Europe. (And even the meal-worthy ones that are in the United States can't be transported across state lines.)
According to the BBC, a European who immigrated to the United States in the mid-19th century brought some petit gris, or "little gray," snails with him or her, and their descendants have settled in California. So Knapp was able to source some of this unnamed supplier's snails, and that's how his farm, Peconic Escargot, got its start.
Because of those USDA regulations, Knapp's miniature mollusks are kept in a snail-proofed greenhouse, complete with airlock doors and grated drains, and the entire structure is surrounded by what's essentially a gravel-filled moat. But that seems to be a solid tradeoff, because inside the 300-square foot greenhouse, he's raising as many as 70,000 petit gris snails, which he calls "the bay scallop" of the snail world.
"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," he told the New York Times. "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." (And yes, Knapp also does a bit of beekeeping on the side.)
Knapp, who has previously worked at Copenhagen's famed Noma restaurant, forages greens for the snails, and they're raised on a diet that includes burdock, clover, and dandelion. Before the snails are processed (or "devitalized," as he euphemistically puts it) they're finished with a few meals of basil, mint, and tarragon, as well as some spent grains from a local brewery.
The snails are then express-shipped to local restaurants or to at-home chefs, where they can be kept in the fridge for up to seven days. (USDA regulations prohibit Peconic Escargot from mailing live snails out of New York). "All of their beautiful natural and wild flavors are intact," the company says on its website. "And because they're raw and not pre-cooked, you get to start at the beginning with how you choose to prepare and season them."
And, best of all, they didn't come out of a can.