Monday, 17 May 2010

Yummy Snails

My Czech friend keeps urging me to grow vegetables. I always resist. For one thing it sounds like hard work, and then my regular trips to the UK mean that I am not always around to water the plants when they need it. But there is another very good reason why I think it would not be worth attempting - our local population of snails. After a rainstorm you can hardly fail to step on one - crunch, crunch, crunch is the soundtrack to a walk in the garden.

There are snails of all sizes and colours including some very pretty yellow and brown striped ones. But easily the most impressive are the monsters like the one shown above. These are the edible snails or the french escargot - helix pomatia. They occur naturally in the Czech Republic, as in many other parts of continental Europe. In Britain however they are rare and a protected species. In England they are to be found only of chalk or limestone soil and usually near old Roman sites, as they were introduced by the Romans as a delicacy and, having got into the wild, have not made it very far in the two millennia since their escape.

A week ago I was walking with my Czech friend in the English countryside near Chedworth in Gloucestershire and had just put a basket half full of St George's mushrooms into the car, when we were hailed by the local landowner. "What have you there?"

I showed him the basket and he relaxed. He explained that they have been having trouble with gangs of Poles harvesting the Roman snails, which get good money in the London restaurants, and that the Poles were also stripping the woods of wild fungi and causing damage in doing so. Of course both fungi and snails are common in the Poles' homeland.

It is legal to collect fungi for personal use in the UK but not commercially. And it is illegal to harvest a protected species like helix pomatia. The farmer was quite within his rights to challenge, especially as, unlike in Central Europe, the woods around Chedworth are private and visitors must keep to the footpaths. The Poles hadn't helped their argument by turning up mob-handed and in cars and vans with London registration plates, nor did they help themselves by pretending to be unable to speak English when challenged. As a result the farmer was challenging anyone who appeared with a basket in their hand. After he had left, my Czech friend commented on how wonderful it was that British farmers saw themselves of guardians of the countryside, unlike Czech ones. "If only that were true of all British farmers," I thought, but did not say.

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