Mike Collins from the UK went to France as a young man to study languages. He got a job with a large company and in his job he travelled a lot around France. He loved discovering new places and new tastes and developed a penchant for snails, the very French foodie favourite. On a whim, on one of his travels, he decided to visit a snail farm, sure that he’d find the tastiest escargots possible. He was disappointed when he tried the great classic: snails in garlic sauce. “No personality” is how he describes the dish. He says he thought: “This could be so much better”.
So – he became a British snail farmer in France…
The good life for a snail farmer in France
Mike was deeply unhappy in his corporate role and the disappointing snail dish he tried, inspired him to dream of opening a snail farm of his own. He wanted to grow the best snails he could, and create the tastiest recipes.
Mike says he didn’t rush things. He spent a couple of years researching and studying what snail farming entailed. He worked out the ideal location was in the north of France (famous for its rain). In 2008 he took the plunge, gave up his job and started a small snail farm in the village of Râches, Nord, Hauts de France.
Mike’s two big requirements were for a large garden which needed to be marshy, and to be in a place where he could attract customers. As soon as he saw what is now his house, with its big garden near the regional national Park Scarpe-Escaut, he knew it would be perfect.
It’s a lush, gentle area of wetlands, two major rivers, forests, picturesque villages but close to the cities of Lens, Lille and Arras. The house is on a main road, “about 22,000 cars pass by every day which I knew would be great for trade” says Mike. “Plus, this area is like a cultural melting pot with Brits, Belgians (close to the border) Spanish, Flemish and Dutch expats and tourists. People here are open to innovation in cuisine”.
Setting up at a snail farm
Snails are a much-loved food in France where more than 30,000 tons are consumed annually. Surprisingly less than 5% are farmed in France. Most, including the famous “Burgundy snails”, are imported from eastern Europe. Mike felt that home-grown French snails as a business -must have legs. But, when he told the local mayor about his business proposal “he thought I was crazy, but he was courteous about it” recalls Mike. Undeterred, he told the Mayor that he would place an ornamental snail on the roundabout outside the farm when he achieved success. Go there today, and you can’t miss the giant 2.5m snail statue!
Mike created an enclosure for the snails, what he calls a “park” in the back garden. It didn’t cost much financially to set up he says. But, he invested a lot of time studying snail farming and took courses and passed mandatory exams.
Choose your snails
Only two species of snail are farmed in France: small grey snails -petit-gris (helix aspersa aspersa) and big grey snails – gros-gris (helix aspersa maxima). Mike decided to go for the latter, “they’re much meatier and tastier” he says.
Snail farming started at a “snails pace” he admits, starting with breeding. “Mating takes hours, anything up to two days from start to finish; snails are tantric”. When the tiny babies are born in spring, Mike transfers them by hand, very carefully and slowly, onto wooden posts in the enclosure. “There’s never any certainty in this game. I always panic about them at this stage”.
As they grow, the snails roam freely in the park – but they can’t escape as Mike rubs black soap, a natural repellent, along the top of the fence. “Sometimes they do try for a mass break out, but mostly they’re happy here and they stay in situ”.
Some farms use electric fences, but Mike’s philosophy is about keeping things as natural and ethical as possible.
Mike doesn’t use chemicals or pesticides on his farm. Instead he grows plants the snails love, mustard for instance. “It absorbs nitrogen from the air and transfers it to, and improves the soil. It also provides shelter from rain and sun, the leaves are like umbrellas”.
He trained his dog Wanda to work with ferrets to clear out unwanted visitors – scaring off birds and rodents. The snails take 150 days from egg to maturity and are checked daily by Mike, Wanda and the ferrets. “It’s a lot of work” he confesses, “I doubt if I’ll ever get rich doing this, but I love what I do, it’s my passion”.
The snails are harvested in autumn. They are killed by being dipped in boiling water, “it’s immediate” says Mike. The meat is separated from the shells and blanched. Then it’s rapidly chilled or goes into dishes which are frozen “it’s the best way to retain the nutritional value and the taste”. The shells are scrupulously cleaned and used for presentation.
Successful snail farm
“In theory, we can keep the meat for up to 18 months” says Mike “but that never happens, we always sell out well before that”.
All the work at the farm is done by hand, from harvesting to cleaning and preparation of the dishes. Mike does everything himself but has help at busy times of the year from students who gain valuable work experience for planned careers in the catering and restaurant industry.
It didn’t take long for the locals to discover that despite being British, Mike’s snail farm is one of the best. “Yes, they did think it was crazy that a Brit was growing one of the most French things you could possibly get!” he laughs. “I think they came first for the curiosity factor but now they come for the taste”.
His biggest success has been to develop “heat and serve” snail dishes and now offers dozens of recipes. They range from the classic snails in garlic butter that started him on this route, to snail sausages which are very popular. His smoked snails with goats’ cheese and fig, snails with Roquefort and walnut butter in a wafer case, “tikka masala snails” are also loved by the locals. His reputation and his clientele have grown and the little shop at the farm has daily queues.
Mike now also supplies restaurants and markets, and says he was once “flabbergasted to find Chef Steven Raymon of the Michelin star Rouge Barr restaurant in Lille in my shop”. The chef bought 3000 snails!
Success on the snail trail
This British farmer who is changing the taste of snails in France is “cook, farmer, recipe developer, salesman, book keeper, negotiator and a whole lot more. No two days are ever the same and you have to expect the unexpected”.
Details of the farm and shop address and opening times: www.facebook.com/escargotsfermiers/
Read the full article in free magazine The Good Life France