SALUTE THE SNAIL

In Aveyron, Howard John­son meets a pas­sion­ate pro­ducer de­ter­mined to over­turn any prej­u­dices about eat­ing es­car­gots

France - - Contents -

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.”

In­ten­sive train­ing

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

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