The first monastic buildings were established on Barra in 620 A.D.. The monks’ lifestyle involved fasting and during these periods meat was not allowed but the Roman Catholic Church allowed the eating of fish, and snails, for this purpose, were classified as fish, and most certainly came in these early centuries with the monks. Later on Barra was used as a recluse for monks wishing solitude and once again snails would have been consumed. Barra lay on the sea route taking Irish mariners to the Faeroes, Iceland and beyond.
The unique natural clean island maritime air, the banning of pesticides on Barra and the herbage of the machair make this island snail unique. The snails flourish on the calcium-rich machair of Barra, where a mild wet climate mixes with the alkaline sandy soil to produce ideal conditions for the snails to grow. It is this remoteness that contributes to the quality of Barra’s snails.
They have a slightly salty taste with faint traces of iodine – they taste of the land that produces them; reflecting both the rich herbage of the machair meadows but also a saltiness reflecting the maritime climate.
One needs specific knowledge to prepare them, and they need a lot of cooking in an environment where there are no trees, and where getting peat to burn was not easy work. The knowledge was lost locally.
Barra’s snails shells are browns, greys, yellows and creams and reflected blue hues. They are smaller than snails of the same species on the mainland. The snails are hand harvested, then cleaned by starving them for a week so they naturally purge themselves of any impurities. After that they are placed in sea salt for a couple of hours, which helps remove any remaining impurities. They are rinsed off one by one, blanched in boiling water, stripped of their shells and intestines removed. Finally they are cooked in bouillon for a few hours until they are tender.
Prepared Barra Snails are fantastic in a beef casserole, delicious in a heritage pork terrine and sensational when cooked in a parcel with herbs and butter. Cooked simply they retain the wonderful flavours of the Barra terroir.