* An edited version of this exclusive article was first published in The Times, August 2017. This is my (longer) original:
Progress may have gone at a snail’s pace, but a tiny wild Scottish mollusc has finally been accepted into the care of a global food organisation to protect it from extinction.
The Isle of Barra snail, which grows naturally on the calcium-rich machair around the sand dunes of the second most southerly of the Outer Hebridean islands (Vatersay being the most southerly), has now joined hundreds of other foods – including the Bamberger Hornchen potato, Kosovan wild strawberry, Albanian Mishavin cheese, West Bornean forest honey and Kentish cob nuts - on the Ark of Taste, the international catalogue of endangered heritage foods created by Slow Food International to draw attention to their existence, preserve their growing environment, and encourage their cultivation for human consumption.
The Ark of Taste differs from the EU-run Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) system, which lists foods - such as Stornoway Black Pudding – which are produced, processed or prepared in a specific area, and which many fear is is at risk following Brexit.
To gain permission to board the Ark of Taste, a product must be linked to a specific area and to the memory and identity of a group, and be produced in limited quantities. Barra’s unique eco-system means the snails thrive there naturally – they are not farmed – and have a distinctive flavour. However, the local population no longer eats them, preferring to use them only as fish bait. This was the reason the application to board the Ark stalled for some months.
“We could not find anyone on Barra who remembered their grandparents or great-grandparents eating the snails, so knew the knowledge of how to prepare the snails for human consumption was disappearing, and that ticked one of the main criteria,” said Wendy Barrie, leader of Scotland’s Ark of Taste commission which is supported by Slow Food International, based in Italy. “However, it was extremely difficult to find proof of their culinary heritage, which put our application into doubt. That’s why it’s such a privilege to on the Ark, as it’s very difficult to get in. We had to put everything on hold last December until after some hard work we discovered an amazing link.”
With the help of the 300 food history books she has at home, and especially her dusty old copy of pre-World War I Encyclopedia Britannica, Barrie found strong references to the historic eating of snails in the Outer Hebrides. This, together with founding of the Catholic monastery on Barra and the fact that the Catholic Church considered snails to be fish and allowed them to be eaten by the monks, was Barri's "bingo" moment.
The arrival Christianity on Barra occurred when a monk and hermit, probably a Gaelic Scot known now as St Finnbarr of Barra, founded the first monastic buildings of Kille Bharra in the 6th century AD. The monks’ lifestyle involved fasting and during these periods meat was not allowed. But the Roman Catholic Church allowed the eating of fish. Snails, for this purpose, were classified as fish and were doubtless regarded as a valuable source of protein. Later on, Barra was used as a refuge for monks wishing solitude, and local snails would again have been consumed.
“We’re thrilled to bits to have found this amazing link,” said Barrie. “We just couldn’t believe it.”
Meanwhile, Gerard MacDonald of the Isle of Barra Oyster Company, who lives on Barra, where pesticides are banned, has made it his business to resurrect a market for what he sees as a “fine product that should not be forgotten”. He approached Fred Berkmiller, the French chef-patron of the appropriately named l’Escargot Blanc and l’Escargot Bleu restaurants in Edinburgh, at a time when nobody else was interested. They are now popular items on his menu served with garlic and butter in the classic way, as snail confit, with monkfish cheek, or added to steak and bouillabaisse to add depth of flavour.
“The knowledge of how to prepare them is almost gone as it is quite a time-consuming and labour-intensive process,” he said. “They are hand-harvested and, although virtually free of toxins, cleaned by starving for a week so they naturally purge themselves of any impurities. After that they are place in seasalt for a couple of hours, which helps take out any last remaining impurities. They are rinsed off one by one, blanched in boiling water, taken out of the shell and the intestines removed. Finally they are cooked in bouillon for a few hours until tender.
“Visually, Isle of Barra snails are very similar to French petit gris snails, but their provenance and flavour are totally unique. They are part of Scotland’s culinary heritage and we should be proud of them. Hopefully their presence on the Ark of Taste will boost that pride and encourage more people to use them.
“It makes sense when too many chefs are buying in tinned snails that have been farmed in Turkey, Taiwan, Czech Republic and Romania.”