The French are the biggest consumers of snails in the world – munching their way through a staggering 40,000 tonnes per annum. High in protein, low in fat and to many people a very tasty meat…
I’ve been reading more and more lately about how France imports 90-95% of the snails that are eaten from elsewhere. Poland for instance has become very popular for the snail buyers of France, and Greece too – all round Europe in fact. It seems that snails bought from outside France are cheaper but there is a lot of controversy around the wording on packaging. “Burgundy style snails” doesn’t necessarily mean snails grown and prepared in Burgundy. Newspapers in France have devoted many column inches to the fact that the vast majority of “French” escargots are not actually French. If you look at the packaging on the snails for sale in supermarket chiller cabinets you’ll probably find it says they are from the EU, rather than specifically France.
I’m thinking that I could probably do quite well if I set up a snail farm in my garden in Pas de Calais – there seem to be plenty of the buggers out there after a particularly wet spring. My friend Annette tells me that snail slime can be used as a beauty treatment! She swears it is good for the skin and we should look into a snail slime products. I thought she was pulling my (frog) leg but I looked it up and you can actually buy snail slime face cream on Amazon so it can’t be ruled out!
Apparently the decline of French snail farms has been going on for a while now with less than 300 farms dedicated to the raising of snails left in France. The problem is down to cheaper snails being available from outside France and possible pesticide issues in France according to one newspaper I read. Demand is far outstripping supply and I could be just the man (or rather woman) to fill the gap!
I’ve looked into what it’s all about:
First of all – you don’t just eat any old snails as you might think. The most popular types of snails for eating are Cornu Aspersum, Helix pomatia, the Burgundy snails, the “petit-gris” Helix aspersa – which is a garden snail and Helix lucorum.
It is quite likely that the Romans, who considered them a delicacy, introduced snails to the diet of the French ( I suppose we should be glad that the Roman favourite – stuffed dormice, didn’t catch on)…
It seems I would need somewhere to keep them so they don’t wander off – a plastic greenhouse or polytunnel is fine – they need space, you can keep 20 snails per square inch apparently, squash them in and they get stressed.
You have to keep them in moist and humid conditions – not a problem in my part of northern France we have plenty of rain!
You have to feed them well – lettuce is good and they allegedly love watermelon. I’d need to grow food for them in their home environment like cabbages so that they are happy to forage – a happy snail it seems, tastes better.
Snails are hermaphrodites and can take male or female roles in mating and reproduction.
Some snails have a strange mating ritual in which they puncture their partner with a calcified “love dart” and they mate with each other – sometimes for hours and that is after a courting ritual which might last from 15 minutes to six hours (very tantric)…
You have to purge them before preparing them for eating – this means feeding them the right food to clear out the grit for a few days before harvesting them and then starving them for 48 hours so that their digestive systems empty.
Preparing snails involves removing them from their shells, and cooking them – usually with garlic butter, chicken stock or wine. To serve they can be placed back into the shells with the butter and sauce or in special snail bowls indented for 6 or 12 snail servings (without shells).
You have to be prepared to get your hands dirty as all that slime needs clearing up (or putting into bottles with labels saying “great snail slime face cream” with a very technical sounding but completely made up name).
There is a French snail farm near me where they grow around a million snails a year – I’m going to go and check it out and see if this is a potential career for me!