September 11, 2014

Snail Farm

The snailmaster in touring mode
Frederic is a former technology worker who gave up the glorious glow of a computer screen two years ago to raise...snails in Burgundy. He is one of many young entrepreneurs in the region who are diving into the world of gastronomy with both feet, bringing the old school tastes and techniques in line with the 21st century. It is an unusual career move, but not stupid. The French gorge on the gastropods with some regularity (they eat 30 snails per person per year), but get really serious around the holidays, when seemingly every table bulges with snails and foie gras, the two specialties that seem to know no boundaries, as at home in Provence as in Perigord.The most famous snail, l'escargot de Bourgogne, belongs to the species Helix Pomatia. It is illegal in France to raise or collect this species for commercial purposes and, as a result, all the snails that are labelled "escargots de Bourgogne" are in fact harvested in Eastern Europe (Greece, Poland, Hungary) and most likely processed there before being frozen and sent for sale and consumption in France. So, Frederic, barred by law from using escargots de Bourgogne, launched L'Escargot Bourguignon, a slight turn of phrase (Burgundy snails instead of Snails of Burgundy, loosely translated) and began raising a quarter million gros gris, or big grey snails, that have a similar taste and size to the traditional Burgundy snail.

At his farm in Vernot, a miniscule village about 25 minutes north of Dijon, he conducts tours for small groups and school children. Rabbits hop around in freedom, chickens and ducks cluck and squabble, there are signs of dogs and cats...it looks and feels more like a farm than a snail farm. On a recent summer Friday afternoon, the group was seven for a tour and tasting. Frederic gives a quick overview of the history of snails in the region and then guides visitors to one of the pens in a greenhouse, a 50 square meter rectangular space enclosed by a wooden border about two feet high. 

The snail park
An electric fence runs around the top of the border, the most effective escape-prevention tactic he employs. Inside the pen are a lot of snails, almost all of which are inside their shells, riding out the heat of summer until nightfall, when they feed more regularly. There are two long columns of wooden planks leaning against a central board that runs the length of the greenhouse. The planks serve as a primary hang out space for the snails. They cling to the outside a little bit, but mostly they congregate in the shaded area on the backside of the planks, sheltered from the wind and sun. In between the rows of planks are the remnants of what was a forest of vegetation, snail food. The creatures eat clover, mustard, rapeseed, sunflower, alfalfa, and radish, as well as dried wheat, corn, and barley. To help their shells, they also get a calcium supplement.
 
Frederic explains that inside this pen are 15,000 snails. The previous evening, he had guests for dinner and, he explained, when he took them out to the pens for a quick glance, they realized what 15,000 snails looks like. Out of their shells, hungry, and moving with some determination in every direction, a real snail circus. In all, he has 250,000 snails across more than 600 square meters of pens.

He explains the vital role each animal plays in the cultivation of snails: rabbits, not heavy enough to crush the snails, eat the leftover vegetation in the pens; chickens come in after the harvest to scrape up the ground, turning over all the snail slime and feces and annihilating the insect population; there are even sheep around the outdoor pens, used to keep the grass tightly clipped and thereby give snail predators less shelter for their lecherous attempts. 

Uncle Wiggly doing his part
Despite the best protections he can conjure, he still loses more than a third of his crop every year. Sickness, of course, plays a role, though he confesses that the snail would never tell him it was sick and, if one were, he certainly wouldn't be able to tell. Despite his best efforts to tread lightly, he does step on and kill some of the poor creatures. One day he turned off the electric fence during a visit from a school group and forgot to turn it back on. When he returned in the morning, 15,000 snails had departed every which way, moving at 7 meters an hour...he spent the better part of a day chasing down as many as he could, but clearly some slipped away into the fields. When the snails climb the vegetation in important numbers, they can cause the tops of the plants to bend over the electric fence, giving the escargots not only a full belly but also new liberty. And birds, bugs, and animals love to eat them: crows, porcupines, hedgehogs, and, worst of all, wild boars who blithely penetrate the pens and find themselves in the midst of a (barely) moveable feast. The signs of a boar visit are among the most disheartening for the snail farmer; not only is the devastation serious, they are also known to be return visitors. 

An outdoor pen in sunlight shows no signs of snails
While we all had a good look around, Frederic described the cycle for the snails, from birth in captivity to growth and, eventually, harvest, all of which is done by hand. He then coaxes the snails into hibernation by placing them in refrigerated spaces, mimicking nature's winter, and there they can stay until he is ready to prepare them. Until this year, he went about an hour away to Besancon to kill, clean, and cook his snails; now, he has a laboratory on site. (When he said that the government considers live snails as a "fish" product and the cooked snail as an "agricultural" product, it was clear that the French have plenty of headaches dealing with their own government.) 

He took us into his "showroom," where he offered white wine to accompany snails three ways: one in a buttery spread that he put on toast and fired under the broiler; one cake, dense and sticky like a carrot cake, that had a little sweet-and-salty thing going on; and then snails dressed in their traditional robe of butter, parsley, and garlic. Instead of serving them in their shells, however, he placed them in edible shells, which resembled cake cones from the ice cream parlor. These last were sensational, the crunch of the shell marrying the buttery flavors of the tender snail. 

Of course, this is France. He had only the spread for sale that day, as he was out of everything else until at least six weeks from now. And if you want something for Christmas, plan ahead: last winter, in just his second year, his clients, 1/3 of whom come from within 10km of his house, another third from Greater Dijon, and the last third (ahem) tourists passing through, had purchased all his stock by December 15. 

But they're there, snail partying, on the shady side of the planks
Frederic, who works alone, does no advertising, is new to the field, and yet has tapped into France's insatiable appetite for quality, local food, grown, cared for, and prepared by someone known. It is a wonderful relationship to witness and share.

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