By Tessa Raebeck
After searching for fresh escargot to no avail, East End chef Taylor Knapp was about to give up when a friend joked that he should raise the snails himself.
“I kind of blew him off and dismissed it pretty quickly,” said Knapp, sitting on the porch of Greenport’s First and South Restaurant, where he is the head chef. “Then I got to thinking about it ‘cause it was in the slow season and we didn’t have anything better to do than think about crazy ideas like that. So heck, let’s go ahead and raise some snails.”
Knapp teamed up with his friend Sean Nethercott, a server at First and South with an extensive family history in restaurants. Born and raised in Riverhead, Nethercott brings local connections and a business background to Knapp’s table.
“I say I don’t want to touch the numbers and he says he doesn’t want to touch the snails,” joked Knapp.
Together, they formulated the idea for Peconic Escargot, the first known operation committed to raising local snails in energy efficient, sustainable greenhouses. Traditionally, snails have been raised in open-air pens. The greenhouses, according to the duo, provide a safer and more consistent environment. Although there are several small-scale wild snail farms throughout the United States, Peconic Escargot is the first on the East Coast and the only operation that intends to sell their snails to a wider market, they said.
Knapp and Nethercott are committed to showing the public a new side of escargot, which is at present only available in canned imports from France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Peconic Escargot, on the other hand, will be shipped in vacuum-sealed containers designed to maintain freshness and flavor.
“When you’re putting them in a can you’ve got a lot of high heat going into that and that strips them of their flavor,” explained Knapp. “They’re often adding water or oil, salt and preservatives. These are all things that kind of detract from the product so we’re looking to keep this as clean as possible. If you were going to go to the farm and pull a snail out of its shell and cook it very quickly and eat it — that’s what we’re going for, so trying to take all those other steps out of it.”
Peconic Escargot also strives to show how escargot can be used as a flexible, staple protein product in the kitchen.
“It’s a super versatile ingredient,” said Knapp. “I think that’s something that we’re really trying to get into people’s heads, that it doesn’t have to be this old school butter garlic mess that everyone thinks of it as.”
Having never tried escargot either fresh or canned before, Nethercott was not too keen on the idea of snails at first, but Knapp’s innovative dishes quickly converted him.
“Once I tried the fresh escargot I was turned,” said Nethercott.
“To me, it’s very earthy,” said Knapp. “It’s very meaty. I think you can describe it a lot like a mushroom. So anything you would use a mushroom in would be a good application.”
They have used escargot to embellish pastas, pizzas, okra, grits and salads, to name a few.
“We did a tomato salad with some sunflower and escargot,” said Knapp. “It’s one of those things where it’s got a flavor of its own, it has this very earthy flavor, but at the same time it’s open to other flavors.”
“They do pick up the slight taste of whatever you feed them as well,” added Nethercott.
Knapp continued, “Because you’re eating the whole animal — almost like you would an oyster or a mussel — there’s nothing that you’re taking out of it before you consume it, so whatever it’s eaten last is still there.”
Hoping to experiment with different flavors, Knapp and Nethercott plan to feed their snails various herbs, tree nuts and acorns.
In order to procure funding and build community-driven support, Peconic Escargot launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $35,000 by October 1. Should they meet their goal, they plan on initially marketing to fine dining chefs, then expanding to larger purveyors.
“The possibilities are endless,” said Knapp.
To donate to Peconic Escargot’s Kickstarter campaign, visit kickstarter.com/projects/peconicescargot/escargot-un-canned-peconic-escargot.