The tiny snails don't look like much, their spiraling shells in varying shades of chocolate and taupe hiding a sluggish little creature inside. But these snails -- called tingles in the United Kingdom and drills here in the United States -- are deadly to Gulf Coast oysters.
With miniature teeth-like appendages called radula, the drills do just that: drill through an oyster's tough shell after softening it with a secretion of sulfuric acid. The drill eats the soft oyster from the inside out, leaving only a tiny bored hole behind as a calling card to frustrated oyster fishermen from here to England.
"They're big predators of oysters," P.J. Stoops sighed over the phone. Stoops, a well-known local fishmonger and forager who now works for Louisiana Seafood, has more than a passing familiarity with the invasive species. But he also has a solution for them.
Along with Louisiana Seafood owner Jim Gossen, Stoops has been encouraging people to eat these snails -- which the company is calling Biganos snails -- in what can be seen as Texas's very own invasivorism movement: eating predatory or invasive species to save an ecosystem.
"The oyster fishermen that I deal with love to eat them, but they hate dealing with them," Gossen says of the invasive little creatures. "Those snails come in from the Gulf and they eat the oysters. They kill a lot of them. Before it gets too close to the summer, [the oyster fishermen] like to fish them out."
"The fishermen in Louisiana, it's really a treat for them," Gossen says about the snails. "Any time they catch them, they keep them. It was last year during Easter, I was on my way to Grand Isle and I stopped at a friend's house. They were boiling these Biganos in the water along with crawfish."
"I assume they were named after Biganos, France," Gossen added, referring to the country where snails are most popularly consumed.
But what about America, where snails are more commonly seen only in French restaurants, having come out of cans and not out of our own backyard? That's where Stoops and Gossen are looking to shake things up.
"In America in general, we don't deal with live snails," Stoops agrees. "What do you do with a snail that's much bigger than a vineyard snail but still has amazing possibilities? It's just a matter of educating people about what they are."
And what they are is simple: a snail that's about three to five times larger than the typical escargot, with a much firmer texture. They can be eaten raw, steamed, sauteed or even -- as with the case of Chef David Grossman's latest experiment at Branch Water Tavern -- pounded thin like veal, then fried into delectable fritters.
The texture, however, can be off-putting if not prepared correctly. Stoops counters this with the argument that "there's hardly anyone in the entire world who wants to quickly sear a lamb shank and eat it that way."
"So cooked the right way and prepared the right way, it becomes something entirely different," he finishes. "These days, cooks are very familiar with cooking really tough cuts of meat -- so there's no reason that idea can't be transferred over to snails." And if Stoops and Gossen had their way, we'd be eating much more than just these snails that eat our oysters.
"We market oysters. And that's about the only thing in shells that's marketed," Stoops says, pointedly. "But I've eaten about 15 other different species in shells that I harvest myself out of the bays out here. There's an absolutely amazing variety of stuff that you would not believe."
Gossen agrees. "Sheephead and drum used to be trash fish," he notes. "And it used to be that only seafood restaurants sold softshell crabs; now it's everyone." He doesn't see Biganos snails becoming the next hot seafood item, however. "They'll probably never be a big thing -- they're snails -- but they're local and sustainable."
On the other hand, he adds, "the higher-end restaurants can certainly use them. Now you see all these chef-driven restaurants and they're all trying to do something great and stand out. I see the opportunity more and more because everything we bring to them, they try them. But the customer has to buy them."
And if they can encourage restaurants and diners to give these Biganos snails a try?
"It's a beautiful way to sell underutilized species," Stoops says, summing it up. "It's noninvasive biological control for this massive predator."
"We can take care of the oysters, harvest the snails when they're there and help the beds out. No one's ever going to go after the drills by themselves, so there's no danger of overharvesting. As an adjunct to the main fishery, the oyster fishermen makes a little more money and -- most importantly -- it opens people's eyes to the amazing things we have down here."
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But Stoops, long a fan of foraging for food from local bays and inlets -- a product of his years spent living in Thailand, where artisanal fisheries and hand-gathered seafood is prevalent -- takes the idea of invasivorism one step further. For him, it's about enjoying the bounty of local, sustainable food right in front our faces instead of overfishing the Gulf for more standard catches like red snapper and other finfish.
"Given the world we live in, we just can't continue on like that," he says, thoughtfully. "Considering that the Gulf of Mexico is the second most productive fishery in the entire world, it would seem to me that where we need to be looking is our backyard."
You can also look for Biganos snails to make potential guest appearances at Houston restaurants like Branch Water Tavern and Catalan, where Chef Chris Shepherd was one of the few people in town to share Stoops's enthusiasm for the snails.
And how does Stoops eat the Biganos snails he catches? "I eat them any way I can," he laughs.