Thursday, 15 December 2016

Dorset Snails – Slow Food at its Finest

Jennie, David and Tony - the snail specialists

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Steve Jobs

One of the joys of this blog is finding out that a national or international phenomenon can be traced back to a source in Dorset. Then the pleasure of listening to someone wax lyrical about their product with genuine passion.

See what I mean with the UK’s #1 garlic farmer here.

Of course, we’re all selling something to some extent, but stories of celebrities stonewalling through interviews in monosyllables addressed through their PA show that we don’t all believe in what we’re selling. The latest person to share their story with Dorset Gourmet is David Walker of Dorset Snails.

Snails uncovered
Before I turned up at a nondescript industrial unit just outside Bournemouth, I knew nothing about snails. In fact, I’ll admit I thought they were adult slugs (they’re not). But I knew that something big was going on here. Dorset Snails is the UK’s leading supplier of fresh snails with a client list over the years that includes Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Petrus, Claridge’s, The Connaught, Fortnum and Mason and a whole lot more. At one point or another, The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC, and the great and the good from Dorset’s publications have all made the same journey, albeit probably not with the same No. 13 bus from town.  

Dorset Snails is a family affair. Just David and Jennie Walker, son Tony, and daughter Debi. Any one of them could pick up the phone at a moment’s notice and summon a variety of celebrity chefs, but for up to 12 hours a day they’re typically busy sorting, simmering, and extracting up to 12,000 snails a week from their shells in each other’s company with the radio on.

That’s the first shock. I didn’t even realise people in the UK even liked snails, but according to The Independent, we’ve gone from producing 30,000 in 2000 to 750,000 in 2014. It’s a figure that David disputes, not least because he’s producing nearly all of them. But there’s no disputing that snails are now a standard feature on epicurean menus.

A slow start
The Dorset Snail story started in 2006 when son Tony saw Gordon Ramsay visit a Devon snail farm on The F-Word. At the time, David was a retired sales manager with Philips and Siemens who bred worms in a shed to support his love of fishing. An idea hatched, and the family turned to heliculture.

The first step was to order a batch of Helix Maxima snails from Serbia, a country with an abundance of cheap land and ideal conditions for nurturing snails outdoors. It wasn’t an instant success. To be precise, the first batch died, but David was able to harvest the eggs. In total, it took two years of tweaking, coaxing and patience to establish a business. The snails are the same species as the common garden snail, but whereas the garden snail grows to about 10 grammes, Dorset Snails boosts theirs to about 12g with an intensive feeding regime.  

Curious creatures
Starting from scratch doesn’t even tell half the story. David admits to never having eaten a single snail before starting out. Ten years later, and he’s something of a snail whisperer, reading their behaviour and monitoring their growth with the precision of a diamond cutter. Because snails don’t actually have a brain, there’s not exactly the opportunity for the farmer to develop a close bond. But while David admits that his farming doesn’t extend to affection, or giving names to his flock, he does concede, “They’re very clever things really. Quite a complex creature. They don’t communicate or wag their antenna if they’re happy. A happy snail is one that eats. But they react totally to their environment. They know what season it is. And they know the phases of the moon. On a full moon, your garden snails will be less active.”

Snails lay eggs in nests of about 100, usually underground or in leaf or rubbish, which they then seal with a plug. These hatch about three weeks later. The baby snails are fed on a protein-rich diet made up of 20 percent fine chalk for about 11 to 18 weeks before harvesting.

But banish all thoughts from your mind of herding snails into crates for a trip to the abattoir. Snails, it turns out, are capricious creatures. They like a soil temperature of about 10 degrees. Below that, they go into hibernation which can last for over a year. In fact, Dorset Snails keeps several thousand breeding snails ‘on ice’ (actually a fridge) as a back up. “Bring them out, get the temperature up to about 20 degrees, give them a spray of water and they’re awake,” says Dave. It’s not the only attribute they share with teenagers. Within a couple of hours, their thoughts turn to laying. “They’re actually very receptive to laying as soon as they’ve woken up because that’s what they do in the wild,” says Dave.

Raising the tempo
The secret to the Dorset Snails’ success is to keep the snails laying. “Our sort of farm is highly labour intensive because we’ve got the snails laying eggs 52 weeks a year. In the wild, or in open air farms, they only lay once a year then you have to find the eggs.”

Although snails are famously hermaphroditic in nature, they do inject ‘love darts’ to fertilize a mates’ eggs and boost fertility. These can then store for up to two years and used when the mood demands.

Snails, David reveals, also have a natural pecking order. “There are alpha snails,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons why if you overfill the system with too many snails, they won’t all grow. The bigger ones get to the food first and the others form a queue around it. You might put 100g of food with 100 snails, but they won’t all get their 1g.”

Getting snails wrong
The next step is preparation. Browse YouTube and you can see how to cook Spanish caracoles, for example, squirting the live snails in salt and vinegar, then rinsing off the slime and simmering with onion, white wine, chorizo, and a tomato sauce. David is appalled. Cook it this way, and you’ll end up with a rubbery, gristly snail.

Worse still is tinned snails. “They’re packed in tins with brine and cooked for 20 minutes at 260 degrees,” he says. This is your typical French escargot, of which only 10 percent come from France. (The rest are cheap snails from Serbia, Eastern Europe, Poland and so on.) If you’ve had a bad snail experience, the chances are that this was the culprit. “There’s a few Italian restaurants I know that serve them out of the tin and they’re like snail chewing gum,” he laments. “They have no other taste other than garlic and parsley butter.” Instead, this is how you prepare snails that top restaurants will buy:

The idea of settling down to a sumptuous banquet of snails that were aimlessly wandering the garden path that morning is simply a pipe dream. For a start, those snails could have been chomping on poisonous plants such as foxglove, or bursting at the belly with grit and other impurities. It all has to be flushed out. To prepare them for the pot, snails need to go into a rigorous purging cycle – a week on just water to flush out the gunge. After this, they go into the fridge for a month to send them into hibernation.

Rest assured, then, that every snail that goes into the pot at Dorset Snails is already deep in a blissful sleep. The snails are blanched in boiling water for a couple of minutes then deshelled and sold on to chefs to cook at leisure. Alternatively, blanched snails with butter are placed into a water bath at 96 degrees C and subjected to a ‘champagne simmer’ for 2 ½ hours, then rinsed in salt and vinegar to remove any slime. At this point, they are then slathered in garlic and butter and packed back into a shell. Not their shell, though. These would be too small, so Dorset Snails has to buy in bags of slightly larger shells for the purpose. The most astounding part is that there’s not a machine in sight. Just a row of stock pots and Jennie and company working through 12,000 snails a week by hand. On the day I visit, Jenny has an order of 1,000 snails to complete, working her fondue fork with ninja-like precision.

Once the snails are blanched, they bring them down to 5 degrees within 90 minutes then chill them to 1 degree, vacuum pack them, and send them out across the country by overnight carrier.

On my day at the processing plant, there’s an order being prepared for courier despatch to a very well known chef in London, and a 12-pack destined for the Isle of Wight by snail mail. Back at the beginning, the first big name to champion Dorset Snails was Anthony Worrall Thompson, David reveals.

“He was our first customer, and he had six or seven restaurants at the time. I went to his house with some sample snails, which were too big for the dishes he wanted to serve them in, so we had to harvest smaller snails. He had the Notting Grill in West London and I took up 55 packs on the Thursday in a van. On Saturday, he phoned to tell me that he’d run out.”

From snails to Escargots
The list of chefs who have run with the snails since – and the various approaches they’ve tried – is inspiring.

At Marco Pierre White’s steakhouse, the ribeye and fillet are doused in snails in garlic butter. At Temple & Sons, Jason Atherton does a Dorset snail bourgignon alongside clams. Our own Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster used to serve a very popular snail breakfast with mushroom, black pudding, bacon and fried bread. At The Tickled Pig in Wimborne, even the pizza came with a snail topping. You can even have them spicy. Cyrus Todiwala sold out with a snail curry tartlet based on a Goan monsoon season dish. One of David’s favourites is from Menu Gordon Jones in Bath where the snails are served as an amuse bouche in a light tempura batter, cooked for about six hours in a low oven.

Keeping up with the pace
Whatever the recipe, demand shows no sign of slowing down. “Overall, it’s been about a 40 percent increase year on year,” says David. “It’s not that we can’t keep up with demand, it’s that we never let anyone down. We’ve even driven up to Fortnum and Masons on a Saturday morning because they’ve run out.”

Aware that there’s a big order to fulfil and that David would probably talk about snails until the early hours if allowed, my last question is about the life of a snail farmer. It is, he reveals, a fairly pleasant existence. No dawn milking, no cold winter mornings. Instead, a satisfying and lucrative way to spend the days.

“I was a hotel owner at The Mayflower in Lymington,” he says. “Then I retired. We sold up in 1999 and mucked around a bit, did some fishing, then got a little bit bored.” Although the plan is to hand over the business one day to Tony, who at that moment is furiously whipping up garlic butter, it’s business as usual for now. “We have no plans at all to stop. I love it.”

Who wouldn’t? How many people get the opportunity to work side by side with their spouse and children in harmony? Well, almost. “I’ve learnt that if there’s a conflict about anything, I’m always wrong,” David concludes.

If you would like to comment on the above, add your own snail dish, or just get in touch, either leave a comment below or email And if you liked it, do please share it using the social media buttons below. Enjoy! 

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Illana Smith - South Coast spice from Hari Hari

Bournemouth might not be a place you'd associate with exotic South Asian spices, but these are the lapses where opportunities present themselves. Seizing the moment was half-Sri Lankan, half-British Bournemouth University graduate and entrepreneur Illana Smith. In a short period of time, Illana has grown Hari Hari into an instantly recognisable presence on the local food scene. 

Before she gets her own spot hosting Saturday Kitchen and becomes too famous, I seized my own moment to find out the story so far...

Illana Smith Hari Hari

How did Hari Hari came about?
Not wanting to go back to working for someone else was the first driver. I had many different business ideas but the idea of curry was the most appealing simply because everybody who ate my Sri Lankan curries said they were never able to recreate them at home. This led to the birth of Hari Hari. 

What were the challenges you had to overcome?
I basically had no idea how to start a business. A year of research set me up ready to launch.  I read a lot …. and I mean an awful lot!! I spoke to as many people as I could who ran their own business already to get advice and tips. I made Environmental Health my best friend ;) I knew I would have to work closely with them as I was in food, so made contact very early on. They were brilliant and offered me a wealth of further advice and information.
I knew what I wanted (how it looked, how it would work etc.) but wasn't up to date with the legalities of it and that took time to learn. I made some great friends along the way on this research journey and absolutely thrived on the learning. It is these friends that led me to new contacts, new connections…a little like a snowball effect until I was ready to set Hari Hari free.

Hari Hari

People probably know curry spices, but your business is based around Sri Lankan spices specifically. What is the key distinctive difference?
The flavour!! The flavours are very different to Indian spices. I have tried to cook curries using the spices readily available here but it just doesn't taste the same as a curry back home. The whole time I have been in the UK, I have always had my stash of Sri Lankan spices with me, which I either brought over myself after a holiday there or got family and friends to bring for me when they came over. They are the same plants, but a different strain and I am certain that the soil, climate and so on plays a part in why they taste different.  

Hari Hari
Spicing up Wimborne Food Festival

Your website is a good example that these days you can't just sell a product – you have to educate people and tell a story. Did you have to learn this aspect of the business and what proportion of your time would you say is spent on it?
I think I have been lucky in the sense that I have always approached Hari Hari as a journey.  I see my customers as being passengers on that journey with me, so it is only right that I tell them all that background and nitty gritty of what is going on. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was just the way I viewed Hari Hari from the outset. It’s my baby and I want everyone to feel the passion of Sri Lanka and its food, culture, heritage through what Hari Hari is about.  I was lucky in that I didn't have to learn it - it was just the way I worked! In relation to the journey and social media I probably spend too much time on it. I am now trying to become more time efficient and am beginning to schedule postings etc. - forward planning to help free me up to do other jobs.  

Who has inspired you along the way and why?
My mum inspired me. She brought me up to be independent, to be able to stand on my own two feet and the drive to succeed came from that. I still remember at a very young age (about 12 I think) my mum gave me the talk on why it was so important to do well at school, get good grades, get a good job so I could buy all the things I want, travel the world etc. I very flippantly replied with, “I’ll just marry a rich man” to which she replied, “What if he has an accident and can’t work and you are left to get a job?!” I got what she was trying to say and she has been my source of inspiration to achieve ever since! 

What would represent success for you? At what point would you be able to say, 'Mission accomplished’?
I don’t know is the honest answer. I would like Hari Hari to become a household name (I have seen my logo’ed lorries driving up and down the motorways delivering my stock across the land) but I think as long as I am learning I will always keep going. 

Imagine I'm a fairly conventional cook who tends to buy familiar herbs and spices from a supermarket I know well. How would you convince me of the benefits of trying one of your spice packs?
Hari Hari spices are set up in an easy-to-follow step-by-step process. It really is as simple as 1-2-3. The recipe instructions are very straightforward and you can make the dish as fiery or not as you like. I always show people the spice kit explaining what you do - fry your onions, garlic and ginger (if using) with spice pack 1, add your product and spice pack 2 along with your coconut milk and/or water (depending on your preference) and then at the end you add Spice Pack 3 - you control the chili so you can add as little or as lot as you like. 
The spices themselves are relatively mild. It’s the chili that gives the dishes the kick. As they are pure spices, the kits are also perfect in relation to food intolerances. They are suitable for people with dairy, gluten, wheat, nut, soya, salt and sugar intolerance. This makes them very versatile little kits and the fact that the finished curries freeze really well means that there really is absolutely no waste as any left overs can be frozen for another day - saving you on cooking time too!

I see that you used to work in HR and have lived in Sri Lanka and the UK. What do you miss most from both the corporate world and Sri Lanka, and what do you love most about what you're doing now?
I was born and grew up in Germany, which is still a key part of my childhood. I have many friends there and try to go as often as I can. With my Dad still living there, my ties are still pretty strong to Germany.
I think I miss the regularity (in a bizarre kind of way) of corporate work and the being able to close the office door and leave work at work. Though that was great, it is also the thing I love most about working for myself. No two days are the same, I am constantly learning, growing and work never stops for me. To the point where I have a notepad by my bed as I quite frequently wake up during the night with an idea. I have learnt to jot it down there and then, or else I forget it by the time the morning comes around.
Growing up in Sri Lanka was certainly an idyllic life. I was very fortunate in what I got to see, do and experience and life there is certainly special. With wonderful people, culture, food and climate you can’t really go wrong. I miss the heat! I definitely miss that! But being in the UK affords a certain freedom that is not quite so readily available in Sri Lanka.

My life has been a journey and it is sort of coming full circle, combining all the elements of what I love from my experiences in Hari Hari and if I can get you to enjoy that journey too and fall in love with Sri Lanka and its food then…..mission accomplished :)

Liked this profile? You can also read about...
Mark Botwright from South West Garlic Farm here
Tracey Collins from Ajar Of here
Hannah Green from Mrs. Green's Farm Kitchen here
Ross Tapley from Dorset Herbals here

As always, if you'd like to share your story or leave your thoughts, leave a comment below or get in touch through Enjoy!

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