SALUTE THE SNAIL
In Aveyron, Howard Johnson meets a passionate producer determined to overturn any prejudices about eating escargots
We talk to a producer about the pleasures and pitfalls of raising escargots.
You know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to have a photograph taken of myself covered in snails. I think that would be amazing!”
Well, they say you have got to enjoy your work, don’t they? So surely this proves that Sandrine Rey has found her dream job, raising and selling snails for a living in the small town of Viviez in the Aveyron département.
I imagine that many of you can’t think of anything worse than being covered in the slimy creatures, even though snails are natural producers of collagen in their mucus. And collagen is perfect for regenerating the skin. But even if you’re not a snail-lover to the same intense level as Mme Rey, who produces 350,000 each season at Les Escargots du Rouergue, I want to convince you that the humble molluscs are a fantastic culinary treat.
The moment I knew for sure that my wife and I had successfully integrated into French life was when we celebrated our youngest son’s 16th birthday recently. Sitting on a restaurant terrace, with the magnificent Albi Cathedral casting a hazy shadow in the background, Louise looked at the menu and quickly decided on her starter of escargots. And neither my son nor I batted an eyelid.
When used in a culinary sense, the word ‘snails’ has traditionally caused English noses to wrinkle as if there is a bad smell in the room. More generally, it has been used as a way of denigrating French culture and lifestyle as something foreign, alien, and even a little bit dirty.
Of course, this is nonsense. Escargots are a much-valued part of French cuisine because they are simply fantastic to eat. While I admit being an adventurous sort, I defy anyone not to enjoy this simple dish, beautifully cooked and dripping in garlic butter. The only thing holding you back is your prejudice!
The French consume around 15,000 tonnes of snails a year, sustaining an industry worth an annual €100 million. France is at the hub of the snail-raising business, so no wonder producing them for the plate is a serious affair.
Strangely, however, snail-eating really only became fashionable in France in the early part of the 20th century. By the 1950s, ten times as many were being consumed compared with 1910. But the shelled wonders have been eaten since way back in Mesolithic times, around 10,000 BC. They were enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, with the philosopher Pliny the Elder noting that grilled, a few went down a treat with a glass of wine. The Romans were such fans that they had their own farms, where small walls made out of ash or sawdust prevented the freedom-hungry beasts from escaping. These snail farms, or cochlearia in Latin, sprang up all over the Empire.
The walls of ash or sawdust have gone, but snail farms can still be found throughout France. I met Sandrine Rey on a balmy May morning in her office at Les Escargots du Rouergue and was quickly taken with her passion for all things snail.
“There’s a lot to be said for raising snails,” she tells me. “They don’t make a noise, they don’t smell bad and they don’t take up much space. They do try to escape from their pens, though, so I have to put up an electric fence.”
Sandrine’s love affair with snails began by accident. She happened to bump into someone who was selling a business rearing them, and, bored by her job in administration, she decided to take the plunge in January 2015. Having completed an intensive training course in a specialist school in Savoie (one of only two in France specialising in héliciculture – the business of snails), Sandrine threw herself into her work.
“What I like about this job is that it allows me to do three things I really enjoy: live outdoors tending the snails; work on my own; and meet people when I’m selling at farmers’ markets.”
Not that this is a soft option. Sandrine’s season for production lasts for only six months, from May to October, but the working days can last up to 18 hours during this period.
“During the season, it’s not unusual for me to be out until midnight or one in the morning at a market, and then starting work in the fields at seven the following morning,” she explains.
This is one of the reasons why an estimated 95 per cent of producers abandon the business of snail-farming within the first two years. To give yourself the greatest chance of success, Sandrine says you need to be both knowledgeable and motivated.
“It’s pretty complicated when you first start out,” she admits. “You have to understand how to run a farm, the different types of snail there are, how they live and what is the best environment for them. You also need to produce a lot of snails if you want your business to work. In my opinion, the minimum for one person to live from a business is 300,000 per season. You have to be prepared for losses of anywhere between ten and 30 per cent, possibly even more, because there are lots of predators that love snails: mice, rats, birds, snakes, lizards…”
Two types are generally suitable for breeding: the petit gris (little grey), which weighs around ten grams, and the gros gris (big grey) which is twice the size of its little brother. There is another edible snail, le Bourgogne, but it is more difficult to mass-produce in an easy and cost-effective way.
The best method is to put up to a maximum of three kilograms of breeding stock (300 petits gris or 150 gros gris) in boxes. The boxes have no earth in them, but are equipped with wire mesh grills over the top. Each box needs a feeding device for food and drink, and small pots of fertile soil for the snails to lay eggs. The boxes have to be kept at a temperature of 20°C by day, with 95 per cent humidity at night, and have fairly intense light for 16 hours a day. It takes around ten days after snails have mated for the eggs to hatch. If that sounds difficult, that’s because it is, and Sandrine opts not to deal with the reproductive process at all.
“I buy the baby snails,” she explains, “because you need a lot of equipment to produce them yourself. You need more space and a constant temperature. It would be better in the long run for me to produce my own eggs, but they’re fragile and it’s complicated, and I’m only one person.”
Sandrine raises only gros gris; for her, the petit gris are too fiddly and the Bourgognes take up to two years to rear compared with six months for the gros gris.
“The Bourgogne is a protected species in France,” she tells me. “You can only collect them in the wild during a small window in July, so if you buy them in a supermarket at another time of the year, the likelihood is that they have come from Eastern Europe.”
Sandrine makes her living by transforming the snails in her own on-site laboratory so they are in a fit state to be cooked and sold. She cleans and disinfects the shells, then puts the meat back in once cooked. It’s labour-intensive, but this process then allows her to sell directly from her on-site shop, at farmers’ markets, and to local supermarkets. She also gets calls from committees during the fête season asking her to provide maybe 70 to 100 servings for the region’s traditional Sunday morning tripe breakfast.
“The work is most full-on between Christmas and New Year,” she says. “That’s the big period for eating snails in France. So while the work is intense, I do manage to get three months off from February to April. It’s a working rhythm that suits me.”
Sandrine’s business obviously conforms to all the required norms, but she doesn’t see the need for additional certification. “I can pay to be certified organic or to be able to put ‘Made in Aveyron’ on my packaging. But I don’t see the value for my business. I can’t even satisfy the demand I have right now, so I don’t think I need extra marketing help.”
Sandrine’s passion for her work shines through, and my passion for enjoying her produce is as strong as ever. But does she still enjoy eating snails?
“Definitely. I always like to put a few plates aside when I’m selling at a farmers’ market. When things quieten down towards the end of the night, I’ll share them with the other traders – and I always seem very popular then! A plate of snails cooked in garlic, with parsley and shallots. What could be better?” Nothing, that’s what.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Sandrine Rey on her snail farm; Her snail park; An escargot de Bourgogne
ABOVE: Cooked escargots in butter, garlic and parsley; BELOW: Snails in the raw
Les Escargots du Rouergue Place de l’église 12110 Viviez Tel: (Fr) 5 65 63 37 47 www.lesescargotsdurouergue.fr