Mendip Wallfish, Somerset
Mendip Wallfish - snails - are by now one of the best known unknown dishes of Britain, rediscovered on a regular basis by various chefs and writers every decade since the 1960s.
It should in fact be no surprise that snails are eaten in this country. The large Roman Snail, as the name suggests, was introduced into Britain as a foodstuff almost 2,000 years ago: needing little tending, and eating waste leaves or wild foliage, they were a cheap form of protein and a delicacy too. The brown-shelled garden snail is just as edible, but more are needed to make it worthwhile cooking them. And although the continent has been cut off from Britain for several thousand years more, the British have frequently ventured over the channel for cultural exchanges such as those at Agincourt and Crecy, and latterly for St Tropez and Biarritz. French chefs have been welcome here for centuries, though the locals did resent them flooding the market after 1066.
Why the snail as foodstuff survived in Somerset is hard to say. The damp but warm climate in the Southwest maybe has something to do with it, providing the ideal conditions for snails to thrive in. The village of Priddy is particularly linked with the dish, The Miners Arms there once being famed for it. The fact that the Romans had important settlements nearby, for lead mining, may not be coincidental.
There is no definitive 'British' way with snails, but the use of cider in the court bouillon is suitably regional, and herb butter to stuff and flavour the snails is another touch that separates our version from the French, who tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic when preparing escargots.
Snails are undoubtedly delicious when cooked with care (and when carefully purged and cleaned beforehand), but surely the most charming aspect of the British version is the word Wallfish, at once a euphemism and a nice description of their climbing habit.