The first thing one notices when passing the barn on the Peconic Land Trust property in Cutchogue is the fortresslike security of the 8-by-16-foot greenhouse behind it.
The front door opens to another door, creating an airlock. The windows and floor drains are covered with plastic netting. The greenhouse is filled floor to ceiling with plastic shelving, each leg resting in a plastic container filled with salt water.
So, just what are these safety measures protecting? Snails — or, more accurately, escargots.
“The whole system we have here: the greenhouse, the enclosure; we can never let these loose in an outdoor environment,” said Taylor Knapp, co-founder of Peconic Escargot, the only snail farm currently operating on the East Coast.
The idea to create a snail farm came in part from Mr. Knapp’s experience working as a chef at First and South in Greenport, where he struggled to find farm-fresh snails.
An eye-opening moment then came when he dined at the popular Momofuku restaurant in New York City and snails were on the menu.
“We asked where the snails came from and the chef said they came in a can from France,” Mr. Knapp recalled. “I was like, ‘If chef David Chang can’t get fresh snails then nobody can, so there’s obviously a need for this.’”
Mr. Knapp, 28, and business partner Sean Nethercott, 34, raised much of the $30,000 needed to launch their unique business through a 2013 Kickstarter campaign and help from investors. But while raising the funds was fairly easy, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become the country’s only USDA-certified snail farm took years.
The first hurdle, Mr. Knapp said, was creating the blueprint for certification, since nobody else was doing it.
“The second thing was that these are an invasive species,” he said. “They’re not native to New York State, so there were a lot of containment issues. That’s why they’re in cages and we have two doors on the greenhouse.”
There are barriers outside the greenhouse as well, including a 12-foot non-vegetative zone filled with gravel. Every two weeks snail repellent is applied to that area, making escape just about impossible for the snails.
Peconic Escargot leases its land from the Peconic Land Trust through the nonprofit’s “Farms for the Future” initiative, which aims to protect the future of farming on the East End.
Peconic Land Trust vice president Tim Caufield said he was impressed by the business’ vision.
“These guys came up with what we thought was a pretty interesting concept,” he said. “It fits in well with the food movement and the resurgence with [local] restaurants.”
Mr. Knapp, who also runs the weekly PawPaw pop-up restaurant in Greenport, and Mr. Nethercott, a real estate agent from Southold, import their snails from a small producer in California. They’re a brown garden variety also known as Helix aspersa.
Today, Peconic Escargot has 500 snails in its Cutchogue greenhouse. They’re contained in groups of about a dozen in 17-inch-square plastic containers with netting to allow air in. While that may sound like a lot, Mr. Knapp and Mr. Nethercott hope to bring in 1,000 additional snails in the coming months. They won’t be in full production for at least another year.
This first batch of snails is being raised to breed. Once they lay their eggs, and those eggs hatch, that second generation of snails will be the first batch sold to market, a process Mr. Knapp estimated will take six to eight months.
Right now, the most important detail is what the snails are eating, since that is the biggest indicator of how they’re going to taste.
“We feed them wild greens like mugwort, dandelion, garlic mustard and chickweed,” Mr. Knapp said. “In the wintertime, we’ll do greenhouse herbs and lettuces. We’re going to try some grain from the breweries to see if that would be something they’d eat.”
“Fresh escargots, compared to canned snails, is a whole different flavor from what you’d expect,” Mr. Nethercott added. “The flavor of the canned snail is dulled, because who knows how long it’s been in there?”
Finding a market for their snails should not be a problem, as the pair has already been inundated with inquiries from all over the country and even overseas.
“Our email box has been filled,” Mr. Knapp said. “We get an email every day, so we just keep telling people to be patient and hang on.”
Local caterer Deborah Pittorino, chef of the former Cuvée French bistro at the Greenporter Hotel, called the added option of locally sourced snails “exciting.”
“People who come to the North Fork are very adventurous and it is attracting people with varied palates,” she said. “I think that being able to get escargots fresh is going to take things to another level and should open up many other possibilities.”
The locally grown snails should have a shelf-life of seven to 10 days, Mr. Knapp said. They’ll be steamed, then packaged in sealed bags.
“Our goal is to have an online marketplace where people can order a couple pounds of snails, then they’re packed in ice and shipped overnight,” he said.
At roughly 100 snails to a pound, Mr. Knapp said they’re looking to charge about $35 per pound. They also hope to sell their snails through a local retailer on the North Fork so customers can buy their own snails to cook at home.
“It’s exciting and we’re happy to be a part of the breakout niche agricultural community that’s emerging out here,” Mr. Knapp said.
Did you know this?
• Escargot is the French word for snail, but the dish is also a popular starter in Portugal and Spain.
• In the late 1980s, escargots represented a $300 million a year business in the United States, according to The New Yorker.
• As a snail protects itself, the slime that is excreted from its body is packed with nutrients like hyaluronic acid, glycoprotein enzymes, antimicrobial and copper peptides and proteoglycans, according to the dermreview.com. These are all commonly added to beauty products and believed to provide benefits to skin.
• National Escargot Day is celebrated in the United States on May 24.
• Some species of snails actually hibernate during the colder months of the year, according to snail-facts.com. They cover their bodies with a thin layer of mucus, which prevents them from drying out.
• Snails have both male and female reproductive organs, according to scienceline.com.
— List compiled by Grant Parpan