Everything you need to know about snails

It’s true; at first they don’t look particularly appetising. But everyone knows that in France we love them.

When it rains, people go out with their buckets to collect the molluscs. You leave them a few days in a box covered with a wire mesh. You pour in some flour to feed the snails and to purify them of what they have eaten beforehand and then you put them in a pot!

Unfortunately we love them too much! They have been collected too often in the last ten years… the result of an occupation of growing popularity.

Well the skill of raising snails, it already has a name, is called ‘héliciculture’

Sébastian Briand has been a ‘héliciculteur’ since 2001 and he knows literally everything about snails. Let’s begin at the beginning…

-Well, it happens in a small place with high humidity and a lot of heat, so that spring-like conditions are brought together in order that they are able to reproduce themselves. A snail will lay about a hundred eggs, yes and it’s a fragile animal in the wild and therefore needs to multiply a lot so that at the end of its development there will be some survivors.

-Did you know that the snail is a hermaphrodite? No? Well then your are learning something. Yes a snail is at the same time a male and a female. Therefore when two snails mate, both of them produce eggs. That means a coupling of two snails will produce about two hundred eggs.

-This is done in a small building and then after we put them in pens outside, in the open for six, seven, eight months-it depends on the region -they will be able to grow peacefully before being prepared to eat.

-Well they are fed vegetables and cereals to which we add some minerals, which strengthen their shells, to have shells that are well hardened, and all of this is found, the cereals and minerals, in powder form ground very finely, so the snails can eat it and as long as it is moist the snail will be able to ingest it.

-Well the favourite cereals of snails are corn and wheat. As far as vegetables, you have several types that snails are going to like. They are going to be able to eat them and to take cover in their leaves; beets among others for example, have large leaves which they will be able to eat and to take shelter from the sun when it’s too hot, under those leaves.

…Radishes rape seed… it’s up to us to try different vegetables in the pens and then to see which ones suit snails the best and also according to the region where we find ourselves. There are places in France where snails have more of a taste because they are raised in a region where there is thyme and laurel and in effect the flesh of the snail has a small taste related to what is found growing in the wild therefore certain growers add this vegetable or that vegetable to give the snails some of that flavour.

-In the wild it is said that about half of them will survive. It’s just a guess, because we are not going to watch them with much precision in the wild. In a farming operation we estimate that there will be about a 30 percent loss, which means that in a clutch of one hundred snails that reach maturity, because of predators, because of diseases which are not well understood, there will be 70 snails out of the 100 that where born for reproduction.

What age is ideal for consumption?

-We cook snails as soon as they are adults. I would say that that depends on the species. There are some kinds of snails, like the Bourgogne, that grow much slower and thus need two or three years before they are a good sized adult while the ‘Gros-gris’ which is more common in other regions of France as well as the ‘Petit-gris’ will need a little less than a year to become adults. That’s why when farming, that is, when it is your trade you are going to use the Big Grey to make a living, for cooking and for selling.

Thus sooner or later the fateful day arrives for the snail…

-Well the standard for most places is boiling, that is we have the water very, very hot, and then we plunge them in the boiling water so that they die and so that we can later cook them.

There are a thousand ways to prepare snails; of course they will be cooked in a simple bouillon of wine onions and carrots in addition they will be prepared different ways in their shells, in small glass containers, in pots whole or in pieces. There are lots of little names that are given to these recipes; they range from escargotine to escapero all starting with snails.

Myself, I like to cook flakey pastry with snails, just a small amount, it’s an aperitif with the snail inside and then with different spreads that are put on top. There are spreads made with tomatoes, those a la bourguignon, which is the most well known made with parsley, with garlic, with shallots, salt and pepper and of course butter. And then there are spreads that can be made with Roquefort, and other cheeses. In that way you can have an assortment of colours on your plate.

Therefore a good part of the aspect of the taste of snails comes from the accompaniment, such as butter and chopped parsley but if we taste a snail cooked in simple bullion, we will be able to recognise the taste of a snail.

Snails are linked to the French identity. Do we know if the French were the first to eat them?

History says that the Romans were already eating snails and plus you have to know that the snail has some interesting taste values, and therefore snails could make an important contribution… with respect to taste, for example elite athletes use the snail as a food source high in energy and low in fat.

In France it’s a custom, we have had this habit of eating snails for generations. What you need to know is that in France there are fewer and fewer of them since there was much gathering done during the 70’s and 80’s, and so in the wild we find fewer and fewer of them. But above all there is the tradition of eating snails at celebrations. Aside from that it’s true that in restaurants it’s rather a high end range of products that include snails but it’s still a tradition, in other words it includes both the popular food and high class dining in certain restaurants.

Sebastian is pleased to receive visitors at his farm in Savoie. If you cannot go there in person a virtual visit to his internet site is a must…

So yes it is called helixa.fr as in France. Preserved goods can be sent to the other side of the globe for as you know with an internet address you can easily make contact with people.

And for those who have an ambition to becoming ‘héliciculteurs’ a word of advise. Contrary to the appearance of the animal this is not a peaceful line of work:

Well no. The snail has that reputation in fact of slowness and of… yes of slowness, but it requires a lot of work to prepare them, to cook them and to sell them. It requires a lot of energy.

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