Last week we had a chance to catch up with Taylor Knapp of Peconic Escargot. Taylor is a local chef with experience working at the world famous Noma in Denmark (2 Star Michelin), as well as a handful of other restaurants in NYC before finding his way to the North Fork. He was inspired to create Peconic Escargot during his tenure as Executive Chef at First and South in Greenport. According to his website, he became frustrated with having to use “a dusty old can of snails” after taking great pains to locally source all of his other ingredients. Hence, Peconic Escargot was born.
Q: How many snails do you have?
PE: We have probably about 12,000 snails right now, and the greenhouse is at about 2 /3 capacity of what it can handle. The snails are anywhere between their growing stages and the purging stage, which is kind of where a lot of them are right now because we are moving out a lot of our product.
Q: Purging stage, what’s that?
PE: When the snails are ready to process they go into purging for about a week. During their life they eat a lot of dirt, and they need that, because they need the calcium the in the soil to build their shells. If they don’t have enough calcium they will have weak shells and they are likely to get smashed. So right now they are eating greens and they are eating dirt; they are getting bigger and then when we are ready to process they go into these empty containers for about a week.
During this time we feed them spent beer grains – these are from Moustache Brewery in Riverhead. We take their spent malted barley and dry it out and grind it into a flour. That’s what we finish them on. So they eat this and they push out the soil and the other stuff that you don’t want to eat. Sometimes they’ll retain a little bit of this grain and that’s good to eat too because when you taste them you will get a little bit of that nice nutty malted barley flavor. If they are not purging then they are eating dirt or foraged greens from the around the North Fork.
Q: So you forage locally for the rest of their diet?
PE: Yes. I just fed them some wild carrot greens. I forage all over, sometimes on this property and also east of here there is a big expanse of woods, the Corchaug Preserve. They eat wild foraged greens like dandelion, clover and sorrel and other greens. This is our first season so were going to see – obviously we aren’t going to be able to do that all the time during the winter. We’re probably going to have to find some other sources, maybe some greenhouse stuff. We might switch it around so that all the snails are eating the barley in the winter, I don’t know. For now they are eating this foraged stuff.
Q: I read on your website you are raising a specific type of snail, care to elaborate on that?
PE: It’s a Petit Gris, a little grey snail, and those came over to California in the 1850s. They were brought over as a food source by the French. There is very little information on it. I’m not 100% sure but I think they may have simply let them loose in the wild. There is a reason we grow these, their size is really nice. They aren’t tiny like the American snails are. American snails don’t get to be quite this big. They also have a wonderful flavor, and they are just incredibly tender. Even without long periods of cooking. Also they can deal with this climate. Right now in the greenhouse its 82 degrees, it can get up to be 120 or down as far as the 40s or 50s and they won’t be happy but they’ll still survive. They have quite a large temperature range which makes it easier for us so that were not freaking out about fluctuations in the weather.
Q: If the snails eat local forage, do you believe in snail terroir?
PE: Sure. The dirt is from Long Island, they are eating Long Island topsoil and the greens are coming from around here too. So although everyone thinks escargot is a very French thing – this is an American ingredient. These are American grown snails, eating American greens and there is no reason you couldn’t serve it at American restaurant, or a Thai or Indonesian restaurant – it’s just a snail. We’re trying to convince people of that. We have a lot of French restaurants reach out, and then when we reach out to an American restaurant sometimes they’re like “We can’t serve escargot.” Some people have this perception that they can’t use snails because they think they are a French ingredient and they have an American restaurant. Meanwhile, you wouldn’t say you can’t serve beef because it’s Japanese – it’s a cow! A cow is a cow.
Q: What do restaurants do with the snails?
PE: You can tailor them to the dish. Greg Ling has done incredible stuff at Industry Standard in Greenport with his escargot and wild shrimp wontons, and his Abura-ramen. He’s doing a lot of Asian inspired stuff. Also there’s Bruce at Bruce and Sons, who uses escargot in his panzanella salad – that’s kind of like an Italian take on it. You can get very American with it. We are trying to convince people that it’s an ingredient and not a food genre
Q: Do you find that you are selling mainly to local restaurants or is there a wider distribution?
PE: Distribution is all over, but we’re not going too far west yet. We’ve shipped some to Texas, we’ve shipped some to Indiana. That’s about as far west as we go. We are shipping FedEx, 2 day shipping all over the country. If someone in Wyoming wants snails, in 2 days we can get them out to him. We have couriers that get them into the city, and up north like in Massachusetts and Vermont. We also do hand deliveries on Thursdays to New York City and Long Island restaurants. On top of that we have a couple of retail spots. Southold fish market has our product. We’re working on building up more of those.
Q: Peconic Escargot is the first USDA certified snail farm in the America, was that a tough process?
PE: Yeah it was very difficult, it took three years. We have been working on this for four years, and we’ve had the snails for about a year. So that’s pretty much the whole story up to this point. The hardest part was trying to get them here, in the state. Once we were able to bring them into the state that kind of changed things. After that it was just a lot of phone calls and emails and inspections with the USDA. Then we had a year and a half to ramp up and build our inventory and start selling.
Q: And now you’re introducing snail caviar, or should I say snaviar?
PE: We’re getting there. First of all the weather is hot and they aren’t in the mood right now. The spring and in the fall are their big laying seasons. We’re going to work on getting them to lay in the winter with a humidifier and some lights, but right now it’s really just the spring and fall. It’s mainly about the humidity of the soil because they bury down into the soil to lay their eggs. If the soil is too dry, they won’t lay eggs because they figure that their eggs will dry out and not mature. If it’s too wet the eggs will actually just swell up and burst open. So the soil has to be the right moisture level. The temperature of the air and the humidity has to be right, and then the snails just have to be happy and well fed. And once we have enough product to move forward with caviar we will. Snail caviar is on the way, snaviar. I’m hoping by the end of the year well have a product for that. Still a little ways off.
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