One of the most famous sights of summertime in Brixton Village is the baskets of African land snails outside the Nigerian-run shops. Snails are as much a delicacy in Nigeria as they are in France, and one buys them alive and fresh in the market before cleaning, preparing and cooking them at home, usually in a spicy pepper sauce.
Consider them somewhere between mussels and squid in texture and looks. Fellow gardeners who know the havoc a hungry mollusc can wreak are not likely to be sentimental about cooking them. The shell alone of an African land snail can grow up to 20cm long and, because they are hermaphrodites, one snail can hatch around a thousand offspring a year. It has traditionally made sense to protect your crops by enjoying the high protein meat snails produce.
The snails are removed from their shells and cleaned with alum to remove their natural lubrication. This takes some preparation but it is very much worth it. You can buy a bag of alum with the snails, using one piece per snail. This dish balances sweet and sour flavours and makes the most of the snails’ chewy meaty texture. It makes a great starter or can be scaled up to serve at a party.
First remove your snails from their shells: it is best to do this outside if possible. You may be able to ask the market trader to do it for you if you smile sweetly enough. If not, you need a heavy object like a large stone pestle or hammer to break the shells open. Wear gloves as you do this as the edges of the snail shells are very sharp. Pull the body of the snail away from the shell and then pull off the greyish inner sac so you are left with the muscly ‘foot’ of the snail for cooking.
Don’t be worried about the slime on the snails. This is all going to be removed with the alum and, if you do get any on your hands, be reassured that it’s prized worldwide for its healing and anti-aging qualities! Using a very sharp knife, cut the foot along its natural line to ‘butterfly’ them and then put the snails in a large pot or bowl of cold water.
Start using the alum rocks to scrub the snail meat under cold running water. Get into the hinges and the split in the foot with the corners, almost as though you are pumicing them. It seems a little odd to start with but you’ll soon get into a rhythm. I cleaned each snail three times to be sure. Once each snail is slime-free, drop it into a bowl of clean cold water and soak for at least 10 minutes. Alum is perfectly safe for consumption but can taste a little bitter so this soaking is useful.
Put the scrubbed and soaked snails into a large pan with a lid, leaving them whole. Add enough stock to come about three-quarters of the way up the snails, season them and add the whole scotch bonnet, the garlic and the sliced red onions to the pan. Bring everything to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Put the lid on the pan and braise the snails for at least 2 hours, checking to make sure the pan hasn’t cooked dry. If the snails look like they are catching on the bottom of the pan, add a little bit more stock. When the snails are easily pierced with a fork they are ready. If your snails are larger, it may take closer to 3 hours to achieve this. Take the pan off the heat and set aside.
When the snails are ready, heat the olive oil in a frying pan with a lid. Cook half the diced onion until it’s softened but not coloured. Keep the other half aside for the salad. Add the allspice and cook it out slightly. If the garlic from the braising pot hasn’t completely fallen apart, include this too. Slice the snails into thirds or quarters, depending on size, and add them along with the pomegranate molasses. Stir the snails to make sure they’re well coated, and then add
Take the snails off the heat and allow them to rest while you make a salad of the quartered cherry tomatoes, the remaining diced red onion, pomegranate seeds and chopped coriander. Mix the cooked snails through, and then season with lemon juice, salt and pepper and serve. Some chopped red chilli or hot sauce works well with this dish too.
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