(This article first appeared in the September 6, 2017 issue of The Independent Newspaper)
Taylor Knapp calls himself “head snail wrangler” — an amusing image, since snails are not known for their speed. But when you live on a farm with 15,000 mollusks and are pioneering the way as the East Coast’s only snail producer, life tends to move pretty fast.
Peconic Escargot, Knapp’s company, began its journey four years ago. As a chef at First and South, located in Greenport, Knapp took an interest in cooking something a little off the beaten path.
“I had already gone to such lengths to source all the other ingredients on the menu,” Knapp said. “[I had] local sources, or at least sources where I had some sort of relationship with the farmer and the producer, and the only thing available to my knowledge at the time were the canned snails.”
As the farm-to-table movement becomes increasingly popular, restaurants across Long Island are feeding into the “buy local” mentality. Without fresh produce, the consumer demand for a given product decreases. Realizing the very niche market at hand, with nothing fresh on the East Coast, Knapp took a leap of faith in attempting the undone, and rather unusual. Snails are only a native species to California, a good ways away from our homeland of Long Island. It took years of regulation through the USDA, a lot of trial and error, inspections, months of convincing board members, and constant back-and-forth emailing before getting the go-ahead.
Eventually, Peconic Land Trust leased a piece of land through its Farms for the Future program; a farm incubator program funded through $1 million grant from Long Island Regional Economic Development, that takes on new farmers who are doing something interesting. “Through our Farms for the Future initiative, we hope to ensure that farmland, once conserved, remains in production and available to farmers,” said Trust president John v.H. Halsey on the organization’s website. “We must assure that both farmers and the business of farming can continue.”
Now with a small greenhouse in Cutchogue, right next door to McCall Wines, Knapp has a thriving business; bins upon bins upon bins of the little critters. Spring is the main egg-laying season, also great for snail caviar, but through heat and lights in the greenhouse the season is elongated to a year-round operation.
The day-to-day runs at a snail’s pace — moving them around, cleaning bins, and waiting the six to eight months for them to fully grow. It’s labor intensive to pick each individual snail from the shell before shipping them to buyers.
Knapp chuckled, “I’m sure the chef appreciates that labor is on our end and not their end.”
With distributors in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, two days a week he’s on the road delivering snails directly to restaurant wholesalers. He also gets mail orders from all over the country as well (he ships overnight every Wednesday). “It’s good for me to see who’s cooking them so I can talk to them a little more about the product. They appreciate getting to meet the farmer.”
Every day is a new tasting adventure. Knapp reaches out to chefs already working with his product along with those who could create something unique, and offers complimentary snails in exchange for recipes to go on the website. The goal is to inspire other chefs for the season and also, hopefully, create a practical recipe for daring home chefs as well.
“Just hearing that people like them and enjoy them, hearing from the chefs that they like them, and having random people come up to me saying, ‘We had them at such-and-such restaurant and they were amazing’ — just completing that whole loop after such a long, difficult journey is the best part so far,” Knapp said.
His own favorite recipe? “So far I really like it in the shell — whether it’s grilled or steamed in a pan with a little bit of beer. I think that’s really good. And I think it’s great when there’s a little broth of any kind that you can dip them in after you’ve pulled them out of the shell. It’s simple and it’s comfortable.”
Business is always on the rise. Now Peconic Escargot is doing farm pickups for anyone who wants their snails farm fresh. Ditch the can and have your produce waiting in the barn!
Not confident in your own cooking skills? For $25 attend Peconic Escargot’s upcoming event, “Rosé & Escargot,” a demo and wine pairing with Knapp, on October 6 from 6 to 8 PM at Peconic Cellar Door, 2885 Peconic Lane in Peconic. For tickets, visit http://www.store.brooklynoenology.com.
Live life on the escar-got!