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The real fact is that all our species of snails are edible, unless they are gathered fresh from feeding upon some poisonous plant. To avoid this danger, it is usual either to starve the snails or to feed them upon wholesome herbs for some days previous to preparing them for the table. The Romans, we read, used to fatten their snails upon meal and new wine until they attained an enormous size and excellent flavour. At the present day in Italy, they are sometimes kept in bran for some time before being eaten. In many places upon the Continent there may be seen snail-preserves, or escargotieres, consisting of odd corners of gardens enclosed with boards and netted over the top. In these enclosures hundreds of snails are kept and fed upon wholesome vegetables and such herbs as impart to their consumers an agreeable flavour. I should like to see a simply constructed snail-preserve in every cottage garden in England. Further information on the subject will be found in an excellent work, "Edible British Mollusks," by G. M. S. Lovell, from which I take the following recipes, the excellency of which I can personally vouch for.
1. To dress snails.—Snails that feed on vines are considered the best. Put some water into a saucepan, and when it begins to boil throw in the snails and let them boil a quarter of an hour; then take them out of their shells, wash them several times, taking great pains to cleanse them thoroughly, place them in clean water, and boil them again for a quarter of an hour. Then take them out, rinse them and dry them, and place them with a little butter in a frying-pan, and fry them gently for a few minutes sufficient to brown them; then serve with some piquante sauce.
2. Snails cooked in the French way.—Crack the shells and throw them into boiling water, with a little salt and herbs, sufficient to make the whole savoury. In a quarter of an hour take them out, pick the snails from the shells, and boil them again; then put them into a saucepan, with butter, parsley, pepper, thyme, a bay-leaf and a little flour. When sufficiently done, add the yolk of an egg well beaten, and the juice of a lemon or some vinegar.
Now, don't you think those recipes sound nice? I have eaten snails raw, and I have eaten them cooked. Raw, they are nourishing, but almost flavourless; nicely cooked, they are excellent. It is of no use for me to attempt to describe their delicate taste. Try them for yourselves, and judge.
We do not find many instances of slugs being generally eaten, unless as a remedy for lung diseases; but I fail to see why, seeing how nearly they are allied to snails, they should be so generally neglected. I have known two gardeners who were in the constant habit of picking up and swallowing any small grey slugs they happened to see. One gave as his reason for so doing, that he thought his chest was weak; the other, that he liked them: both honest enough reasons. The poor might make most nutritious soup and palatable dishes from the common varieties of slug, which, left to themselves, do so much damage to farm and garden crops.
The great grey slug (Limax maximus), the red slug (Limax rufus), the black slug (Limax ater), and the small grey slug are all to be found in great numbers in most parts of England, and when properly cooked are all equally good. People who walk the fields and gardens in the daytime wonder at the immense havoc played by slugs, of which they see so comparatively few. Let them, however, go out at nightfall, with a good bull's-eye lantern, and they will see, advancing upon their crops from rubbish heaps, from hollow trees, from crevices in walls, and from every conceivable hiding-place, hosts of slugs, grey, black, red, large and small.
Why should not these be gathered in hundreds and thousands by the poor for food? The larger varieties might be treated like the Chinese delicacies, the sea-slugs, cut open and dried for keeping. Slugs may be secured without the trouble of a night attack, by placing garden refuse or cabbage leaves under the shelter of boards or tiles. To these traps the slugs will come in the night to feed, and, finding themselves sheltered when day breaks, will remain there to be caught, instead of returning to their usual strongholds.
Let not the labourer say, "We starve. Meat is too dear; bread is almost as dear because the wire-worm, the leather-jacket, and the May-bug worm have thinned the crop; our little stock of flour is rendered useless by meal-worms. The caterpillars swarm upon our cabbages; the sawfly has spoilt all chance of the gooseberries we hoped to sell: hosts of great slugs and snails have devoured what the others left. Upon our fruit trees the cockchafers are gnawing the leaves to bareness."
Yes, meat is dear; but the wheat crop would have been twice as thick if the wireworms, the leather-jackets, and the luscious white chafer grubs had been diligently collected by you for food. Meal-worms are fattening. You should have hand-picked your cabbages and gooseberry trees, so that you might enjoy and profit by their would-be destroyers. The snails and slugs ought to be welcome, and sought for, to be placed in your little snail-preserve. As for cockchafers, you ought to get sixpence a score for them from the squire's housekeeper. They are, like mushrooms, to be gathered and sold as delicacies; or you could fry them for your own suppers, before they have a chance of baring your poor fruit trees. Thus you would not only save all the produce of the little garden, but also pleasantly vary your monotonous meal with wholesome and savoury dishes.
Nature, if undisturbed, balances all her creatures against each other so that no one individual kind shall, increase and multiply to an undue extent. This principle has been summed up in the quaint lines—
"Big fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite 'em;
Little fleas have smaller fleas,
And so on, ad infinitum."
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