On the Trail of the Snail

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Snails have always been a favorite in France but where do those escargot actually come from?

On the Trail of le Snail at Fête de l’Escargot

As escargot connoisseurs gather for this year’s 23rd Fête de l’Escargot in August they may be surprised to learn that 90% of what they are sitting down to enjoy is imported, mainly from Eastern Europe.

Snails farmed in France originate in the Atlas mountains (Credit: Mike Alexander)

True snail aficionados may well be only whispering this uncomfortable truth, for they hope that a campaign underway to specify the origin of snails on packaging, will help save their delicacy from the undignified fate of not being pure produit de terroir.

As it is any careful inspection of boxed and packaged snails in French supermarkets and maisons de terroir or on the street markets shows many bear a “produced in the EU” label. In a country whose produits de terroir are a flagship of national pride the fact that the snail on their plates is increasingly non-national is proving difficult to chew.

Top chefs prefer the Roman snail and according to Jacques Pommier, Président du Comité des Fêtes de la Place de la République or President of the Republic as he cheekily signs himself, snails cultivated in France are without question the best.

However the man behind the annual snail-eating festival in August admits to a certain shortage of domestic supply which means even he has to rely on Polish snails to some extent for the festival.

True snail gourmets gathered to gorge on this traditional delicacy might feel betrayed if they were aware of the Polish provenance of much of what was on their plates. After all for years the world has been told that Digoin, a commune in the Saône-et-Loire department in the Bourgogne region is snail capital of France.

One of the constraints in the supply chain admits Jacques Pommier, is that Bourgogne or Burgundy snails (Helix pomatia) are protected by a harvesting ban during their reproductive season which runs between April 1 and June 30. None of this however appears to dampen the enthusiasm of escargot lovers who pour into Digoin for the festival  between August 3rd and 5th. The organisers this year are providing seating for 1800 visitors at each meal and the five-course  menu which includes a dozen snails, sells for 11 euros.  M. Pommier says gourmands and gourmets are welcome. Each year keen enthusiasts compete to beat the snail eating record which last August was won by a diner consuming 10 dozen snails at one sitting.

Ahead of the great August escargot feast, where organisers say, some 100,000 snails are consumed over three days, Mike Alexander our nature correspondent has been out on the snail trail checking the state of the producer market:

Some journals send you off to exotic islands, others on wild safaris. French News Online not wishing to be outdone in any way and keen to offer readers all the benefits of  high end adventuring sent me off to explore a snail farm in the Lot.

Land of snails - Farming this gourmet delicacy at Gourdon (Credit: Mike Alexander)

As it turns out snail farming is a rather complicated affair and like so many of the farmers in this country, snail farmers, or heliculteur, are under constant pressure just to keep their heads above water. Not only do they have to raise, collect and process the snails, they must also be proficient chefs in order to add value and turn their raw material into something tempting enough to attract picky snail connoisseurs. For Cyril Bouche on his tiny farm near Gourdon this means working seven days a week nearly every day of the year.

He buys in baby snails when they are one week old and weigh only 20 milligrams each. He releases 200 000 of them every spring into his carefully prepared fields of colza. If all goes well, and it doesn’t always, they will have reached a weight of 20 grams when they are ready for transformation some five months later. That is an incredible 1000 fold weight gain. At this stage he begins harvesting 5000 or so on a daily basis. He keeps them in a cool environment for a week to purge them of impurities, then cleans and par boils them before  freezing. Final processing will be left until the less busy winter months.

Snail fare that offers gourmet Produits de Terroir  (Credit: Mike Alexander)

Cyril farms two different species of snail. The Gros Gris and the Petit Gris (see more details of Cyril’s farm and his products here) which are the two varieties you are most likely to find in French restaurants. Neither is native to this country but come originally from Algeria’s Atlas Mountains.

The wild snail of France, and one that is still sometimes found, is the larger Bourgogne which has a stronger flavor but which no one has succeeded in rearing commercially as it takes too long for them to reach a decently edible size. They can be captured wild in season, which does not include winter, when they hibernate or spring and autumn when they “make love” as Cyril charmingly explains.

Snails lay approximately 120 eggs a season. In the wild the mortality rate would be up to 90% but farmers try to keep this down to 25% or less. The snails are kept in small highly vegetated plots each surrounded by a low electric fence to discourage the occupants from making a break for it in the dark. These also help deter slugs which may carry parasites and would compete for the food stock. As the vegetation is reduced the snails are given an organic supplement of wheat and calcium.

Cyril estimates that more than 90% of the snails sold in this country are produced outside of France, mainly in Eastern Europe. This figure surprised me as I had always associated snails with French cuisine. Local producers are keen to have  government introduce a labeling scheme to show the country of origin. However as there are only a small number of local heliculteur it remains to be seen if they can muster sufficient lobbying clout for this campaign.

Snail farming in any large format has only existed for some 20 years or so and much of what the farmers do is still experimental, unlike pig or goat farmers who have thousands of years of experience to fall back on when something unusual occurs.

Our snail farmers face problems with rats, birds, insects and parasites all of which they are still learning to deal with. There is even a species of glow worm that lives exclusively on snails.

Demand is strong however and producers like Cyril are always trying new ways to make their product more tempting at the local markets they attend. I had only tasted the classic garlic snail, served in its shell, but Cyril introduced me to a whole new world of snail cuisine.

He stuffs them with orange tree, nut or echalotes and cabécou, bottles them in white wine and cream and even sells them in an imitation shell. This is made of wheat flour which absorbs the juices and eliminates the need for all that clumsy digging around to get them out.

snail aperos

When buying snails in France, if you want produit de terroir buy direct from a local producer or you may well be palmed off with something … well Polish!

Story: Mike Alexander

updated2crop-150x76If you thought snails were merely a delicacy high on every true  gourmet’s menu, think again. The slime trail they leave across your favourite vegetable patch as they demolish your lettuces, contains a range of chemicals — allantoin, collagen and glycolic acid, that have “many virtues for delicate skin”.

The slime is said to regenerate, heal and protect skin and is well know in South America for these properties. According to a recent report in the newspaper  Sudouest, a Spanish subsidiary of L’Oréal the famous French cosmetics house, is finalising a contract with Louis-Marie Guédon a snail farmer in Brittany to deliver tons of snail slime.

Louis-Marie Guédon who farms as SARL Escargot du Terroir, has set up France Mucus Escargots to market his product which he collects and produces using a highly secret machine he says cost him € 110,000 to  develop with the help of an engineer. He currently produces 10 tons of slime a year but hopes to double the tonnage this year.


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