Ian Clayton: I’ll tell you about a snail

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My dad knew loads of little ditties that I’ve never heard anybody else say. One of his favourites was:

“When I was out walking with my Uncle Jim,

A kid bobbed round t’corner

And chucked a tomato at him,

Now tomatoes don’t hurt when they come in their skin

But this one did, it came in a tin!”

His other favourite was one he said at mealtimes. I don’t know whether he said it to put us off our dinner so he could eat it, but if he did, it didn’t work. It went:

“I’ll tell you a tale, about a snail

It jumped in the fire and burnt its tail

I’ll tell you another about its brother,

It jumped in the sugar, the dirty….”

I’ll leave the next word to your imagination, but it obviously rhymes with sugar.

I was thinking about this for the first time in years when I read a recent article that said British fine dining is becoming obsessed with edible snails. Apparently the posh restaurants and celebrity chefs can’t get enough of ‘em.

Heston Blumenthal has become famous for his signature dish snail porridge and Gordon Ramsay has introduced a fricassee of snail with spinach and baby artichokes.

There was a time when we thought snails, along with frog’s legs, belonged to the French, but there is a history of snail eating in this country. The Romans bred snails in snaileries when they invaded and fattened them on a mixture of bran and wine before devouring them with great relish.

Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, is said to have breakfasted on grilled ones.

In medieval times English Catholics ate snails on meat free Fridays, because the Pope had declared them to be ‘wall fish.’ Now, I can almost hear you wondering, ‘what the heck is Clayton on about this week, and how can this possibly connect to life around here?’

Well, you might be surprised to know that dear old Knottingley was one of the last bastions of snail eating in this country, before the recent revival among the posh dining folk in fine eateries down south. Right up until the years immediately after the second war, snails were considered a delicacy in that town.

I know this because I was browsing a copy of the Pontefract and Castleford Express from 1974 and in it reporter and local historian John Hargrave was lamenting the closure and boarding up of an old Knottingley inn called The Lime Keel. Some older readers will remember this pub which stood near the canal bridge on Racca Green. It was named after the barges or ‘keels’ that carried limestone along the waterways.

Knottingley was of course famous for its limestone quarries and all sorts of wild flowers grew in the old limestone walls that were also home to edible snails. Local people collected these snails and delivered them to the landlord at The Lime Keel pub. He then boiled them until they fell from the shell, pickled them in vinegar and stored them in jars.

They were then sold them as a snack to go along with a pint of Carter’s frothing ale. Proceeds from the sale were donated to the hospital fund in the days when Pontefract Infirmary raised its own money.

Local folklore has it that snail eating was introduced to Knottingley by Italian migrant glass blowers, who believed them to ward off TB.

The last landlord known to have offered pickled snails for sale in The Lime Keel was Henry Ellis, who could still provide a jar it’s said, as late as the end of the 1940s. Some very senior readers might remember him. I’d love to hear from you if you do. Perhaps you might have even eaten a jar of this local delicacy?

I can’t vouch for the health giving properties of Knottingley snails and I suspect they might be fattening, Pliny the elder was said to be a ‘corpulent’ man just before he died in the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii, but that’s another story.

And I’m not sure I can fashion a local connection to volcanoes.