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Meet the Snails Days

I've booked two Meet the Snails days for accompanied children aged 5 - 14 on August 2nd and 15th. They will be in the afternoon between 2 and 4 at Cherry Orchard Nature Reserve, Court Hill, Littlebourne and you can book through the online shop.

Littlebourne reserve pond May 2014

This week I met up with Emma Jenkins again and got updated on Kent Children's University  @K_C_U. When we were at Brogdale, Slow Summer Snail Farm was a Learning Destination for members of KCU to gain credits in their passports. Having moved to the allotments we were ready to rejoin the wonderful process of engaging children in learning about living things.

KCU Logo hi (with TM 2010)

Schools that join the scheme issue the children with Passports to Learning which record their achievements outside school. Lots of visitor attractions like Sissinghurst have activities that the children can do when they visit and get their passports stamped. Meet the Snails days will be worth two credits for children whose schools are members of the scheme. The children will have the chance to learn all about snails and you can enjoy our village nature reserve at the same time.

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Taste of Britain

Watch out for the new series of Taste of Britain on BBC 1 in the autumn because we'll be in the Taste of Kent programme. Last week we were filming and fortunately the weather was kind. It was very good to meet Janet Street Porter and Brian Turner.  When Janet is not on Loose Women she's writing columns for the Independent and the Daily Mail. I introduced Janet and Brian to the molluscs and then Brian did some cooking. You'll have to wait for the recipe but I can tell you it was delicious. We caused a bit of a stir at Littlebourne Allotments but peace was restored by the end of the afternoon. Then we had a tremendous thounderstorm that triggered  some vigorous digging activity in the Roman snail pen.

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This one has just started making a pit but this one has almost buried himself completely:

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I'm keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that they were laying eggs! Now I'm just waiting to see if they hatch.

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Flirting the Roman way

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Aongside the serious business of farming, I'm keeping a small pen of Roman snails. These six beauties spent the winter in my fridge and now the mating and laying season for Roman snails has started, things are seriously hotting up. You may not share my fascination with snails but you have to admit this is some interesting behaviour I've captured in this shot. I'm pretty sure there's some serious flirting going on here, not a boxing match. All I need now is some eggs please.

I will just reiterate for the benefit of those who don't know, that Roman snails: Helix pomatia, are protected in Britain under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and must not be disturbed. My lovely specimens were imported from a reputable source in Italy and not collected from the wild. If you see Helix pomatia offered for sale you need to satisfy yourself that they are from a reputable source. In many other European countries where they occur they are semi-protected so that, for example, you can't collect during the laying season and mustn't take snails of a certain size so that the population is sustained.

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Makegood Festival

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I'm just beginning to feel almost human again after spending a frenetic four days with the molluscs at Makegood Festival in the Old Selfridges Hotel promoting snail eating. It was definitely worthwhile going because of the interest the escargots sparked in all the trade visitors especially, but it was exhausting!

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Miss Papercut (Steph Hosmer) was there demonstrating the way she works to produce those gorgeous images. Steph designed my lovely new business cards and suite of colours and fonts for the new website. So I've asked her to help with the design of some new packaging - looking forward to some lovely curly snail patterns.

I'm always interested to see new small food businesses and Sweet Victory is well on the way to getting started:

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Georgina has tapped into that nostalgia for wartime combined with the resurgent passion for baking so evident in today's TV programmes. We met Frances Quinn the winner of the 2013 Great British Bake Off over the weekend too as she was chairing a panel of food entrepreneurs. Georgina is planning to produce a range of baking kits so you can make heritage recipes at home.

ImageThe first range of historical cakes are based on 1940's recipes taken from sources such as Ministry of Food leaflets tweaked a little to suit modern tastes.

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I tried the Carrot rock cakes and enjoyed them very much. It took me back to cookery lessons at school and my pathetic attempts - somehow my rock cakes always ended up hard and inedible but Georgina's were delicious. If you want to know more contact Georgina Coveney by email : georginacoveney@gmail.com

 

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The first intrepid molluscs venture out

ImageWarm weather has arrived - don't anybody remind of the summers when we've had snow in June - I don't want to know! The first of this year's babies has ventured out and Snow Summer Snail Farm is re-opened causing great excitement at Littlebourne Allotments. On the day I arived with the first trolley loads of boxes I was conscious of a certain frisson in the air as I unloaded and gradually more and more people came round to have a look, reassuring themselves no doubt that the fortifications were strong enough to prevent escape. I'm pleased to say the vegetation has grown well with regular watering and now it's started raining again I'm sure the molluscs will think they've gone to heaven.

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There's 400 snails in there - can you see them?

 

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What's that snail?

The latest wonderful publication courtesy of the Conchological Society is an illustrated guide to the land snails of the British Isles.

ImageHaven't you always wanted to know what kind of snail that was eating your plants? Well here's just the thing for you. It's a laminated fold out strip with 9 pages of pictures and three pages of explanatory text. Did you know there were 99 species of snail living in the British Isles? The page I've photographed is the one with Helix pomatia - Roman snail, Helix lucorum - Turkish snail and Cornu aspersum - what we snail farmers still call Helix aspersa and what most people call the common snail - or some stronger vocabulary when it's destroying their garden. The pictures on this page helpfully show the difference between Cepaea nemoralis and Cepaea hortensis - those lovely stripey or coloured snails we see so often. It's so easy to get them mixed up. Nemoralis has a brown lip and hortensis has a white lip so most of the little snails in my garden I think are hortensis. I am sure you were just dying to know that!

 

 

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May Day festivities - a bit late!

I can't get used to May Day being moved to the nearest Monday but we tried to get into a gently festive mood yesterday. Littlebourne had what we call a fun day which started with stalls, games and loud pop music for the children in the tithe barn. In the afternoon we had an open day at our very small but beautifully formed nature reserve: Image

Lots of bat boxes and different sized nesting boxes on the trees and plenty of labels to tell everyone what everything is.

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We've got two of these lovely bug hotels which are so sculpturally perfect that I think we need them even if they never get any 'guest's to stay

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The pond is a major feature, crammed with dragon fly larvae, tadpoles, toadpoles and newtpoles each year. Is that what you call them?

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Wendy Blanchet, our resident artist has workshops for the children a couple of times a year and these are some of their clay models. I thought the snail looked as if it had its shell on back to front but maybe I'm being difficult.

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We rounded off the day with a barbecue in Turner's Orchard and singing along with the Deal Hoodeners

Note the pan of mulled cider on the gas stove in the foreground that helped the party go with a swing. There was also a barbecue on the go but the veggieburger's fell apart and had to be abandoned.

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As far as the children were concerned the Hooden Horse was the highlight and if they don't looked scared it could be because they took it in turns to get inside and chase each other round. All over by 7pm and home to bed! A typical holiday in rural East Kent...

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Mollusc World - haven't you read it yet?

The Conchological Society publishes a fascinating magazine that goes by the wonderful name of Mollusc World. It is just the sort of magazine you should all have on your occasional table... well I think it's interesting anyway! One of the gems this time was a story about the novelist Patricia Highsmith. Apparently she was very fond of snails - alive not in garlic butter, and would often carry them around as companions in her handbag. She is said to have produced some at a dinner party and introduced them to the other guests when she was bored. I travelled up to London on the train today with a couple of dozen snails in my handbag and introduced them to a potential new customer - but I suppose that's different. I was conscious all the time that they were there, nestled between my A to Z and the obligatory folded umbrella but they kept quiet. They were fast asleep when I packed them but woke up on the way there - you can't expect a snail to keep quiet when it's raining outside.

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Helix aspersa muller: 'petit gris'

Other gems from Mollusc World included a request from the author of a New Naturalist book on Slugs and Snails to be published next year, asking for information on their recorded speed of movement and those stories about snails being used to crawl over wounds after the battle of Crecy in the Hundred Years War. 'Answers on a postcard' please or email to radc@blueyonder.co.uk.

When I was woken in the middle of night by the crash of a snail hitting the floor from a great height I leapt out of bed in an instant. There was a mass breakout in the snail room and there were dozens of escapees all over the ceiling. I rushed about a bit but eventually gave up and went back to bed and lay there pondering about the use of snails to promote the healing of wounds.

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My one weakness: #asparagus straight from the field

Well if I'm honest I've got more than one weakness but asparagus is pretty near the top of the list. Delicious Kentish asparagus in April - who can resist it? I learnt about microwaving asparagus when I went to New Zealand. I used to think it had to be boiled for ages in a tall pan to get that lovely melting consistency. But washed and sandwiched between two plates it just takes a couple of minutes in the microwave and it doesn't seem to lose anything in flavour or texture. All I needed then was the butter.

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Yesterday I was enjoying reading the latest from one of my favourite bloggers: the Single Gourmet Traveller about her guilty pleasures and tried to make my own list. I apologise for being boring but I couldn't think of any food that really made me feel guilty. I just like all the things that are good for me - fresh home grown fruit and vegetables and fish straight from the sea... well maybe 85% chocolate as well but that's not wicked is it?

I don't eat bluebells but I had to take a picture:

ImageBluebells in April! The woods are full of them - what a year!

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Roman snails @Lullingstone

Tom Hart Dyke was on Radio 4 the other morning talking about his kidnap experience in Colombia some years ago. I was reminded of the day he invited me to go to Lullingstone Castle to see his Roman snails. Now there was an offer not to be refused!

my Roman snail

This picture is one of the farmed Roman snails I bought from Italy last year. I've kept half a dozen hoping they might breed but I'm not hopeful as they are so fussy about where they like to live. But I digress. At Lullingstone, Tom and I rummaged about in the undergrowth along the paths until we found some empty shells and eventually one real live Roman snail - it wasn't at all pleased to see us. We were very careful not to disturb it as they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act but it certainly knew we were there and retreated into its shell to wait until it was safe to come out. While we sat in the potting shed drinking coffee, Tom talked about seeing the snails every day on the path when he was walking to the station each morning to go to school. Locals could remember seeing them often in the past and we know they've been in Britain certainly since the Romans brought them to eat. There's a Roman villa at Lullingstone of course so that would fit the story.  The differences between Helix pomatia (Roman snails)  and Helix aspersa (our common garden snails and escargots) are quite subtle but this photo shows them quite well. The foot is a different shape - with a central ridge and a sort of 'skirt' round it and the pattern on the skin is different if you look closely. I think they are lovely creatures ...but I could be biased of course!

 

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Snails race to earn their keep!

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These intrepid performers are on their way home now at the end of a tiring day at work. Here they are stretching themselves out for the cameras, racing for the line, best foot forward.  These escargots certainly look like they know which side their bread's buttered! Made Visual Studios in London employed them to make an animation film and I can't wait to see the final piece.

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Even the snails have a spring in their step!

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Cowslips on Barham Downs! When the sun's out you can almost overlook the grey sludge on the village green left by the receding flood. Most of the roads have re-opened now the big blue water pipes have nearly all gone home. There's a few cellars still being pumped out and we're told the River Nailbourne will probably be running across all those normally dry fords until June. Come to think of it - if anyone's looking for a business idea, I imagine flood rescue is booming.

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It's amazing the effect on the spirits of a row of treees covered in pink blossom. But that unobtrusive dark green box is the significant feature of this picture. It's a telecommunications junction box. We had to put up with traffic lights in the most inconvenient place while 'they' dug up the road but I'm told it's all going to be worth it. At last, our4 broadband service might improve! And you can't sell escargots without the internet.But the molluscs seem to have other things on their minds at the moment. Let's hope we get lots of little babies.  

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Snails feature in Staff Canteen

You know a food has really made it when it is featured in Staff Canteen and today it's snails! http://www.thestaffcanteen.com/editorial/snails-the-food-of-the-future

When I heard the feature was coming up I spent a whole day with www.little_and_loud creating a brand new website. There was quite a lot of preparation before hand. First I decided to use the curvy stylised snail from my book cover designed by http://www.jdsmith-design.com/

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and then http://misspapercut.com/ created some colourways for the logo and chose a font. She went for lovely subtle fired earth colours and the green on green in particular looks very 'Harrods' - just perfect for an upmarket product. This time we went for a simple site so that busy chefs can find what they want easily http://www.hrh-escargots.co.uk/ but we're keeping the original website too http://www.snailfarm.org.uk/ because it serves a different purpose.

They asked me for some recipes so I asked Chef Craig Mather at East Kent College if I could give them his recipe for snails with fish. He agreed and I told them that it was his recipe not mine but they still put it in as mine - hope he forgives me! Happy days!

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Visit Tavola!

On Monday I went with a group of other small businesses to a big Food and Drink trade fair in Belgium. We were treated to this valuable opportunity by 2 Seas Trade http://www.2seastrade.eu/events. It was the place to go for unlimited supplies of cheese:

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and meat arranged in a way that made your eyes water:

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Most of the meat was beef or pork based and rare breed pigs were popular:

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My favourite things were the traders vehicles. I just wanted to take this one home but it wouldn't quite fit into my bag:

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... and what about this wonderful fire engine!

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Look out for my new website: http://www.hrh-escargots.co.uk/  thanks to Little and Loud http://little-and-loud.co.uk/

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Escargots for Lent!

Did you know that snails are traditionally eaten at Lent? It springs from the notion that if it's a mollusc it must be seafood and therfore by extension theologically classified as 'fish'. Monks were very good at getting round the rules it seems and calling snails 'wallfish' was a good strategy. So they could be eaten on Fridays and Lent was an opportunity not be missed for a positive escargot bonanza! In mild weather like this, after all that interminable rain, snails should be easy to find. They'll be emerging from their winter hibernation all over the place and if you can catch them before they start eating they won't need purging either.

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sleeping snail with the 'duvet' pulled over its head

This is a busy time of year for seasonal snail farmers as it's the beginning of the breeding season. As soon as they emerge from hibernation the snails will be cleaning their shells and hanging about in a public place waiting for a potential mate to pass by. As Cahal Milmo said in his recent lovely article in the Independent, British snail famers just can't keep up with demand from customers for home grown escargots. So if you are thinking about joining this select band of enthusiasts why not come on a snail farming course and learn how to do it? http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/snails-farmers-just-cant-keep-up-with-demand-from-british-diners-9057148.html

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A fine romance ... for snails

As it is Valentine's Day I thought I'd better write an appropriate post. Last year I joined the Conchological Society and I really enjoy reading the articles in Molluscan World. Last November there was an article describing the behaviour of a scalariform Cepaea nemoralis:

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Rosemary Hill acquired this beautiful snail with its extended shell, named Curly, from a garden centre, looked after it and observed its behaviour. What she observed was some interesting activity that seemed to be a preparation for attracting a mate. The first one, shell cleaning is something I've seen my snails doing. They stretch their bodies right out and round so they can clean the shell. It's amazing that Curly managed to reach the tip of hers. The other activity was what she called 'hanging around' where the snail climbs up to a high place and just hangs there as though waiting for a mate to pass by. It's a long time since I was a teenager but I seem to remember it involved quite a lot of dressing up and hanging around in public places hoping someone would notice. I wonder if the snail is doing something like that too. Hanging about is certainly something else I've seen my snails doing.

ImageNormally if a snail gets upside down it holds on tight with the shell pressed up against the surface but this is different - lots of the foot is on show - very 'come hither' I'd say. Maybe its stretching things too far to describe this as romance but it's tempting especially today.

By the way, Curly did mate and lay eggs and none of the babies had scalariform shells - they were all a normal shape.

(Molluscs World is the magazine of the Conchological Society. The article 'A scalariform Cepaea nemoralis' by Rosemary Hill was an article in last November's edition)

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Slow Summer Snail Farm on the move!

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This is an exciting moment ... yes really! This empty plot of ground is going to be transformed over the next few weeks into Slow Summer Snail Farm. We had to move out of our happy home at Brogdale with it's lovely fruit harvest and find another place. Three years ago I first approached the Parish Council in Littlebourne to ask if I could keep snails on an allotment and after a great deal of thought they agreed. Under the Allotments Act, you can keep chickens, rabbits and bees on an allotment without special permission - but for any other livestock you have to get their agreement. The primary purpose of allotments must be for growing food of course - if you keep rabbits they've got to be for eating. I'm already half way through moving the snail pens from Faversham but it wasn't until yesterday that I got the exciting news there was a plot I could have. January is the time of year when allotment holders have pay their modest rent, so I guess that's when many decide they just haven't got the time or energy to grow their own food in the way they had hoped. What seems like such a good idea on a balmy day in Spring or summer turns into a chore when it won't stop raining.

The ground is nice and flat so the first thing I've got to do is put down week suppressant fabric to stop it getting overgrown. Then the pens go on top. We're going to need the wire mesh pens to keep out predators here just as much as at Brogdale - there's been a plague of foxes killing chickens and I'm certain there will be hedgehogs, mice and shrews ... and who knows what else! So planning is well underway and I'm just delighted to have the snails so close to home for this summer.

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Snails like rain ...but not this much!

ImageLittlebourne village green where there is normally no water at all... see the top of the seat where you can sit on a summer's day and eat your picnic? It's quite difficult to travel around because so many roads are closed and the pavements are an obstacle course of blue pipes pumping water out of the houses. The fire engines are out in force round every corner and the cellar of the newly refurbished pub is full to the brim. The signs up everywhere remind us to keep our pets and children away because it's not just water, water everywhere but diluted sewage.

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Watercress is a local delicacy and now I suppose we are finding out why. This is the road to Garrington - and the watercress farm. I'm just so glad I live up the hill.

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Molluscs and me - a review of the book

Carole Youngs is editor of the Smallholder Series so I am delighted to be able to post here her review of my book:

As a keen vegetable gardener, my relationship with members of the gastropod family has been one of continuous conflict: the snails mounting incessant attack on any tender green shoots that dare show themselves in my garden, and me trying to devise ever-more devious ways to rid them from my plot. 

Then through this fact-packed book, I discovered Helix aspersa maxima, the edible snail - quite a different kettle of mollusc from those seeking to wreak havoc in my garden, though closely related. For a start Helix aspersa maxima is considerably bigger than the common-or-garden snail, with a shell diameter of 45 - 47 mm, and is highly prized by Chefs wishing to add Escargot a la Bourguignon to their menus.

This book is immensely readable, describing the author's entrepreneurial journey from a varied career in the public sector to becoming a fully fledged farmer, albeit on a small scale. Between chapters recounting her sometimes slippery path into snail farming, she provides the reader with fascinating snippets of information about the culinary and cultural history of edible snails, including lots of very tempting recipes from around the world.

As an entrepreneurial smallholder aiming to make a living in a niche market, Helen quickly realised that she needed to capture the interest of her potential customers in a wide variety of ways, from cold-calling up-market restaurants in smart seaside resorts, exhibiting at food fairs to an often bemused audience, to supplying molluscs for photographic shoots! All this promotional activity led to a 'farm visit' from a BBC crew - squeezing into the spare room where the snails then lived! Within a short space of time, Helen had become an expert in edible snail farming, and the first port of call for radio and TV producers looking for an authoritative voice on this definitely niche subject!

Seven years after becoming a snail farmer, Helen describes herself as having achieved some of the'famous' bit of 'rich and famous', and you cannot miss the real affection in which she holds her 'livestock'. I think she makes a great farmer, and this book reveals her as a highly engaging writer too.

Postscript 

Snail farming also has an important conservation role as, despite being a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, 'Roman' snails (Helix pomatia) continue to be plundered from the wild by those looking for a quick profit from selling them to restaurants and gastro-pubs.

Thank you Carole

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Travels in Blood and Honey

Today I'm revisiting a book I read a couple of years ago. I was reminded of Travels in Blood and Honey by Elizabeth Gowing by the heated discussions in the press about immigration.

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I often feel dreadfully ignorant about other countries and this book was a revelation. It is about an English couple who were re-located to Kosovo for work reasons and how they learnt about the country. Elizabeth's route was through taking up bee-keeping and learning Albanian through cooking with honey. It is just a fascinating story punctuated by recipes for local edible treats. I recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the Balkans.

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