We found them huddled under stones, sitting in grass, massed on fence posts and even hiding in fence posts. They were everywhere. This was Scotland's natural larder just waiting to be harvested. My restaurants are French restaurants but I am passionate about using the best Scottish produce. Picking them from the machair is as close as you can get to first hand sourcing.
Why would I buy farmed snails from France or Indonesia (where most of them come from) when I can source them direct from Scottish islands? Buying from Barra supports the island's economy and my restaurant customers love the idea of eating Scottish snails. It's a talking point.
Similar thoughts struck me the next day when we visited Barra Atlantic, a Barra fish and shellfish processing company. They had bags of beautiful cockles, winkles, razor clams or spoots and langoustines. Many of them already had French labels and were prepped for export directly from the island. Lucky French. And Spanish and Portuguese.
I would love to be able to use these cockles and winkles in my restaurants and yet, if I ask my supplier to provide such ingredients, I have to order them a week in advance. And there is no guarantee that I will get them.
On Barra, we watched the cockles being raked from the sands of the beach where our plane had landed. It reminded me of my childhood. My family would go on holiday in the Vendée. My gran, my mother and I would collect cockles at low tide and then eat them that evening.
Times change and childhood memories don't have much say in international markets. However, it seems wrong that Scottish restaurants must sometimes struggle to source Scottish products.
The blame certainly doesn't lie with companies like Barra Atlantic. It is up to us to appreciate and use the natural bounty of our fields, seas, mountains and machair. Eating locally and seasonally is sustainable. It cuts air miles, supports local economies and it tastes great. Moreover, when people eat in a restaurant in Scotland, they want to eat Scottish ingredients. That means Scottish spoots and winkles as well as beef, lamb and salmon.
We have the ingredients. Now we need to take real pride in the food produced here; we need to shout about it and develop our domestic market.
So, anyone for a Barra snail tartine?