17th Century ‘Smoothie’

The ‘Snail Water’ (archive-ref DDHI/58/1/1)

It’s now 205 years since the Battle of Waterloo, that famous victory over the ‘old enemy’ France.  As a nation we tend to revel in the traditional rivalry between the British and the French but, thankfully, today this is a friendly one. Nevertheless, we still enjoy drawing comparisons between our cultures and remarking about the differences.  Maybe this is what helps us define our national identity, and perhaps one of the most celebrated of those ‘differences’ between our cultures is the widely held stereotype that the French eat snails, or “ l’escargots“.

The common ‘snail’

It may come as a shock then to many an Englishman to hear that, rooted in our own history, is a variation on this most ‘French‘ of traditions.

Items from East Riding Archives reveal that people in the East Yorkshire region didn’t eat snails, they drank them!  Recipes for ‘snail water’ have been identified amongst other historic food and drink recipes and it would appear that it was a popular concoction in the 17th and 18th centuries, maybe even earlier.

One of the recipes stresses the importance of taking the snails alive:

Take a peck of garden snails heap’d up & be careful [that] none of them are dead. Keep stiring them in a bole of beer and as the froth riseth take it off”.

Anyone for snail water??

You could perhaps argue that for most of us in the UK, the idea of consuming a snail would be like doing a ‘bushtucker trial’, it’s just not really on our list of ‘acceptable’ foodstuffs.  So it’s surprising to learn that our forebears had a very different take on things back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Recipe for ‘snail water’ (archive-ref DDHI/58/1/1). View a transcript

It’s funny how something can just go out of fashion, but speaking of which, the cosmetics industry have been onto the amazing properties of snails for a while now.  There’s a vast range of beauty products out there, which promote healthy-looking skin, and a lot of them make use of the mucus produced by snails (Cornu aspersum glycoconjugates).  It’s the slimy trail that you see when an anxious snail moves around, and it actually contains many nutrients and antitoxidants that help to rejuvenate the skin!

In one of the latest tv adverts for a beauty product, you might notice actress Eva Longoria extolling the virtues of the cream’s ‘hyaluronic’ properties (“hy-a-lur-onic“).  This is an acid produced in snail mucus, and there’s no wonder cosmetics firms are quiet about it; an advert with people letting snails crawl over their faces would be more than self-defeating!

‘Restoration jelly’ (archive-ref DDHV/75/16)

The rejuvenating properties of snails wasn’t news to our ancestors though.  They were onto that game centuries ago, as shown by a 1792 recipe in East Riding Archives, for ‘restoration jelly’, whose main ingredient was a “quantity of house snails.”

In the interests of personal safety, hygiene (and of course snail safety), we don’t recommend that you actually try any of these recipes as they’re now merely items of historical curiosity and haven’t been clinically approved. 

Oh, and please don’t put a snail on your face either – that’s just gross!

By Sam Bartle

Digital Archivist

Twitter: @bartle_sam

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