Here, close to the southernmost tip of Africa, our summers are warm and dry. The rain falls in winter when low-pressure fronts sweep in from the south.
This is the heartland of South African wine country and the local vineyards spend their dormant winter months enjoying the cool winter rain. And where vines grow, snails tend to thrive.
During the winter months our local vineyard snails have a feast on fallen vine leaves and various weeds growing in the vineyard. That’s all fine and well, but when the new leaves grow and the inflorescence forms the farmer doesn’t want snails around.
I like escargot a lot. A few years ago looking at the abundance of snails in the local winter vineyard got me thinking. What if I could harvest some of those snails and turn them into escargot?
Well, with a little googling I could establish that our local snails were indeed the edible kind: Cornu aspersum, previously known as Helix aspersa.
With a little more googling I learnt that snails harvested in ’the wild’ are best kept on a controlled diet for a few weeks, then given water only for a couple of days and then they’re ready for the pot.
This was many years ago and since then I usually collect myself a yearly ’snail farm’ in the local vineyard when winter is coming to an end. It always makes me feel like quoting – in the Danish accent put on by Meryl Streep – that timeless first line in Karen Blixen’s novel Out Of Africa:
“I once had a farm in Africa..”
Collecting the snails is easy because there are lots and it usually takes me about 45 min to gather my two to three kg. Three kg is the most I’ll take; that amount fits in my clam-shell snail cage made of two plasic crates.
About a month ago I was once again crouching between the vines gathering snails for this year’s snail adventure. And once again I was reminded of the sexy snail picking scene in the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. It’s a great book, I can warmly recommend it – and not just for the snail picking. Of course there’s also the film version where Penelope Cruz teams up with Nicholas Cage in the steamiest quest for gastropods in film history…
So, farming snails for escargot I’m well familiar with, but until recently I would never have added snail in any form to soap. In the past I’ve joked about snail slime being the weirdest soap ingredient conceivable, and I would never have considered using it. Because seriously, who would want to use soap made with snail slime?
Seriously, who would want to use soap made with snail slime?
That’s what I thought until recently when I happened to come across a few articles about snail mucin (a dignified euphemism for snail mucus or slime) – or snail secretion filtrate as it’s called by its INCI name.
Apparently snail slime is a veritable cocktail of wholesomeness. Snail slime is a hot trend in the beauty industry and snail slime cosmetics have a significant following in Korea where general beauty-product consciousness is high. In ancient times the Greeks along with various other peoples used snail slime to heal wounds and burns. But legend has it that credit for the modern-day re-discovery of the benefits of snail slime goes to Chile. Workers on farms producing snails for restaurants in Europe noticed that constant contact with snail slime did wonders for their hands. The skin was rejuvenated and cuts and scars healed exceptionally fast. Somebody decided to put the slime in a jar and sell it and so snail slime cosmetics became a reality.
So what makes snail slime so special then? Well, snails secrete slime for their own protection. Snails eat anything, negotiate all kinds of terrain and frequently find themselves in less than clean environments. The mucous membrane covering their bodies is soft and vulnerable to cuts, abrasions, sunlight and bacteria. The slime is a perfect, natural protection and healing substance. It offers UV protection, is antimicrobial and contains e.g. allantoin which regenerates skin tissue and soothes irritated skin, collagen and elastin which give the skin strength and elasticity, glycolic acid which works as an exfoliator and may help lighten dark spots, and hyaluronic acid which is a regenerating and moisturizing agent softening and lubricating the skin.
Snail slime serums and creams are said to effectively moisturize and lubricate skin, reduce inflammation, reduce acne scars, lighten the skin, and offer some UV-protection.
All that sounded very impressive and suddenly snail slime didn’t seem all that gross anymore. Seeing that I had 3kg of snails fixing to become dinner I decided I might as well not waste anything and give snail soap a chance after all.
Now, snail slime creams as well as snail slime itself may come with all those beneficial components mentioned above, but snail soap is a bit of a different animal. Firstly, saponification involves an initial pH of 14 which is a tough environment for many substances. Would any of all the good stuff survive the lye attack?
Well, it turns out that hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid as well as collagen and elastin are all used in cosmetics in hydrolyzed form. Saponification is a form of hydrolysis so in all likelihood they can take the lye attack. This process of hydrolysis also means that snail slime in fully saponified coldprocess soap has been broken down and isn’t slime anymore. However, since soap is a rinse-off product typically spending a very brief moment on the skin, it’s by no means guaranteed that any of these goodies will have time enough to impart any lasting effect on the skin.
But, soap is also to a great extent about instant gratification as in the performance of the bar while in use. Hydrolyzed proteins typically add creaminess and cushioned slip (’silky feel’) to soap lather. So, if nothing else, the protein content in snail slime can be expected to influence what the snail soap feels like while you’re using it.
There’s slime and then there’s slime..
I had the snails in a cage on a diet of the coarsely ground corn flour known as ’mielie meal’ in South Africa. A controlled environment and diet helps ensure that the snails are as clean as possible when it’s time to use them. But how would I be able to extract the slime?
A snail secretes two types of slime. One underfoot to ’pave it’s way’ as it were. The other type of slime is secreted when the animal is stressed and this is the slime that is so regenerating, rejuvenating and moisturizing for the skin. So, in order to extract the right kind of slime you stress the snail. This can be done without killing the animal, but I wouldn’t call it ’cruelty free’. On the other hand it’s probably no more cruel than killing snails with salt, snail bait – or ducks. I’ve seen pictures of snail facials where snails peacefully crawl over somebody’s face. While that may feel cool and give rise to fabulous photo opportunities, it’s probably not going to give you the most potent slime.
When the snails had been on their corn flour diet for about three weeks and on water only for a couple of days, it was time for the pot.
First, they got hosed down one last time in the cage.
This, by the way, is my first blog collaboration with my daughter Alice, who kindly helped document the slime extraction process with photos.
Then the snails got rinsed carefully one by one. Given how dirty the environment can be where you find snails, the animals themselves are usually remarkably clean. However, dirt may stick to the shell and you want to remove that before cooking them or extracting slime.
After that it was time to collect some of that precious slime. ’Precious’ is not just a cute expression here; according to one article some companies pay up to 1000 Euro a litre for snail secretion filtrate. Seems like we have some green gold right there.
To extract the slime I ’massaged’ each snail. That’s a time-consuming job and it took me a good hour to collect about 130g of snail slime. That’s about 10% of the oil weight of my intended soap batch. I didn’t count exactly how many snails were involved, but it was roughly a third of my three kilos of snails..
When I was 15 you could buy prank slime in little green containers in a shop close to my school in Helsinki. I still remember the colour and moist feel of that prank slime and knowing what I know now about snail slime, I must give the prank slime manufacturers some credit: they got it exactly right. Thick, moist and soft but very stringy. Even the lime green colour was spot on.
Making snail soap
After this I made the lye solution for the soap. There was no way I would have been able to evenly incorporate the thick, heavy slime into my oils so the slime would have to go in the lye solution. Snail slime is more than 90% water, but I didn’t know how easy or difficult it would be to dissolve the thick mucus with lye so I decided to add strong green tea infusion at equal weight to lye.
The stickblender had some hard work to do mixing the green tea with the slime, but eventually I couldn’t see any big lumps anymore and so I added the lye. It all mixed nicely and everything dissolved easily and perfectly without ’floaties’ of any kind. As I poured the solution through a strainer into my oils the only thing left in the strainer were a couple of little pieces of shell.
I chose to make this experimental formula coconut-free. I expect it’s going to be used mainly by myself so I wanted to make a soap that would be comfortable to use on my own old-bird face. Keeping olive oil at about 25% (I resisted the temptation to make my slime soap from 100% olive oil 🙂 ) I added lots of avocado oil and shea butter – and a generous helping of castor oil to sustain lather. I also added a little regular sunflower oil to bring up the linoleic acid content to 15%. Linoleic acid has a relatively short shelf life, but I’ve learnt that my skin loves it so I like to make sure that I have some in soap that I make for myself.
To that I added an essential oil blend of geranium, chamomile, lavender, petitgrain, neroli and a few drops of patchouli. I love to hate patchouli. I’m very sensitive to the smell and can’t stand it by itself but I love the depth it gives in a blend in very low concentration.
I made coldprocess soap so no actual Shakespearean bubbling cauldrons for this snail soap. The soaping was uneventful and once poured the bars each got a little shell embossing with my inverted stamp tool.
My little bowl-scraping test piece was oven processed along with the other bars and performed very nicely as I tried it out the following morning. No slime, but with a rich, creamy and nicely cushioned lather – and a beautiful scent.
I’ve been using my snail soap for a few days now and the coconut-free formula feels great on my skin. The bar is nice and hard and will continue to harden as it cures. For anybody keen to know what snail soap can be like, I’ve released a few bars in Auntie Clara’s Soap Shop.
Gastropods for gourmets
“And what happened to the snails?”, you might ask. Well, first they were quickly killed in boiling water. After that I picked the meat out of each shell with a lobster fork. That’s also a laborious task – snails are slow food on so many levels!
Once all the meat – a little less than a kilo and a half – was out of the shells I slowly simmered it in a broth of a bottle of sauvignon blanc from another neighbouring vineyard, 500ml water, a couple of onions, a few cloves of garlic, a handful of fresh thyme from the garden, a couple of fresh bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) also from the garden, salt, black pepper – and one clove for good luck.
After about an hour the snails were ready. Some were packed away, destined for the freezer to be served at later dates. Some were transferred to snail dishes, sprinkled with a generous amount of ground pistachios and drizzled with garlic butter. A quick visit under the grill, a sprinkling of finely chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley and they were ready to be enjoyed with some hot, crisp ciabatta and a nicely wooded chardonnay. Delish!
I’m very pleased with this year’s snail adventure. Enjoying ’wild-crafted’ escargot and using soap made with snail slime might not be everybody’s cup of tea. It probably requires a bit of an adventurous mindset. That’s fine, I’ve got plenty of that so it works well for me. And I’ll be the first to admit that I do this kind of thing “because I can”. Maybe one day when I grow up I’ll be more rationally motivated, but for now the romantic notion of making use of something that is literally available at my doorstep seems richly satisfying. And if I can get a delicious meal and some really nice soap in the process – so much the better 🙂
With that I wish you all a Happy Halloween!