My introduction to Barra and its snails came via an unexpected email containing a photo. The picture showed a fat cluster of snails on a fence post against a background of blue skies and a wind-swept beach.
The message accompanying the picture was simple: “Judging by the name of your restaurants (‘l’escargot bleu’ and ‘l’escargot blanc’ or The Blue Snail and The White Snail), you probably know what these are and what to do with them.”
I knew they were petit gris, one of the two types of snails we eat in France. I also knew what to do with them when a sample batch of Barra snails arrived in my kitchen. Slightly salty with faint traces of iodine, they tasted of the land that produced of them and they are fantastic in a beef Bourguignon; delicious in a Gorgie Farm pork terrine and sensational when cooked en papilotte with garlic and butter.
Although I didn't know him at the time, the person who sent the email was Gerard MacDonald, owner of The Isle of Barra Oyster Company. When not tending his oysters, Gerard had been wondering if there was a commercial use for the abundance of wild petit gris snails which flourished on the calcium-rich machair of Barra.
Which is why, earlier this year, I found myself sitting in a 12 seater, twin prop plane flying over the west coast of Scotland to the Outer Hebrides. I'm a poor flyer at the best of times and the small aeroplane was doing nothing to calm my nerves. However, as the flight progressed, I gradually unclenched my fists, opened my eyes and peeked out of the window. What struck me most was that we were flying over tiny islands which appeared to have one small farm on them and nothing else.
It is this remoteness which contributes to the quality of Barra's snails. As Gerard explained to me, after the plane had landed on the beach, the use of pesticides is banned on the island and the naturally growing snails are as clean, pure and toxin-free as can be.
We found them huddled under stones, sitting in grass, massed on fence posts and even hiding in fence posts. They were everywhere. This was Scotland's natural larder just waiting to be harvested. My restaurants are French restaurants but I am passionate about using the best Scottish produce. Picking them from the machair is as close as you can get to first hand sourcing.
Why would I buy farmed snails from France or Indonesia (where most of them come from) when I can source them direct from Scottish islands? Buying from Barra supports the island's economy and my restaurant customers love the idea of eating Scottish snails. It's a talking point.
Similar thoughts struck me the next day when we visited Barra Atlantic, a Barra fish and shellfish processing company. They had bags of beautiful cockles, winkles, razor clams or spoots and langoustines. Many of them already had French labels and were prepped for export directly from the island. Lucky French. And Spanish and Portuguese.
I would love to be able to use these cockles and winkles in my restaurants and yet, if I ask my supplier to provide such ingredients, I have to order them a week in advance. And there is no guarantee that I will get them.
On Barra, we watched the cockles being raked from the sands of the beach where our plane had landed. It reminded me of my childhood. My family would go on holiday in the Vendée. My gran, my mother and I would collect cockles at low tide and then eat them that evening.
Times change and childhood memories don't have much say in international markets. However, it seems wrong that Scottish restaurants must sometimes struggle to source Scottish products.
The blame certainly doesn't lie with companies like Barra Atlantic. It is up to us to appreciate and use the natural bounty of our fields, seas, mountains and machair. Eating locally and seasonally is sustainable. It cuts air miles, supports local economies and it tastes great. Moreover, when people eat in a restaurant in Scotland, they want to eat Scottish ingredients. That means Scottish spoots and winkles as well as beef, lamb and salmon.
We have the ingredients. Now we need to take real pride in the food produced here; we need to shout about it and develop our domestic market.
So, anyone for a Barra snail tartine?