Those of you who were followers of my earlier blog angela in provence may remember that, fed up with all the snails in my courtyard, I attempted the traditional French way of dealing with the pests; turning them into dinner. I wasn’t very successful (they all got away). So when I saw a sign, outside Saint Remy, for a snail farm, I thought I’d go and see how the professionals do it.
I phone the owner of the farm, or rather héliciculteur, who is called Alphonse de Meis and he very kindly agrees to show me round. It is after 7 when I arrive, feeding time, and we go into the field beside his house which is blooming with poppies at this time of year. It looks like an idyllic, rural Provençal scene. Within the field are large areas that have been enclosed with low corrugated metal walls with an electric wire along the top. These are the snail pens, and the electric wire is to keep the snails inside the pens, as well as to keep predators, hedgehogs, porcupines and rats, out.
M. de Meis slings a plastic container round his neck and fills it with organic snail food, which he scatters over wooden boards running the length of the pens in between rows of rosemary, grass, thistles and various other plants that snails like. So far I haven’t seen very many snails. However after he has distributed the food, and the water sprinklers have been on for a while, the snails start to appear, apparently enticed by the moisture and the smell of the food.
M.de Meis rears two types of snails, which he keeps in separate pens. One is Le Petit Gris (Helix Aspersa Müller) which is small and indigenous to Provence and Le Gros Gris, (Helix Aspersa Maxima) which originate from Algeria. The Petit Gris is cooked and eaten out of its shell, whereas the Gros Gris is most commonly used for its meat only and prepared out of the shell.
The snails stay outdoors in the pens for all of their growing, or fattening up time, which for the Petits Gris is 90 days and for the Gros Gris is 120. On reaching maturity the snails start to mate and it is at this point that they are collected. The choicest snails are kept for re-producing and go to a cold room where they are put into hibernation over the winter. The rest are starved for a week, to purge them of any bitterness, and then sent off to a special laboratory where they are cooked under special, supervised, conditions and then put into jars ready to be sold.
When the feeding is done (this takes roughly an hour) M. de Meis takes me into the spawning shed behind his office. This is where the snails are brought in the spring to wake up from their hibernation, to copulate and lay their eggs. It is warm and humid and the room seems to be moving with the slow motion of writhing snails covering every inch of the wooden shelves. There is a fetid smell and my first reaction is one of repulsion; I want to flee.
Snails are hermaphrodites, they have both male and female sex organs, but they do not self fertilise and so have to fertilise each other’s eggs. M.de Meis points out to me a couple in the early stages of ‘getting in on’, the snails are entwined around each other and one snail has a dart in its head. Shooting each other with a ‘love’ dart (made of calcium) sexually stimulates them and starts the whole thing off (this may be where the Greek myth of Cupid’s arrow originates from).
M de Meis points out another couple that are in the process of transferring sperm to each other, he picks them up to show me. There is something quite gross and yet at the same time quite fascinating about seeing such a graphic display of a snail’s sex life.
10 days after the coupling, which can take up to 10 hours (well they only do it once, so they might as well make the most of it), they lay their eggs into nesting trays. Each snail lays around 100 eggs, which M. de Meis then collects and puts into plastic boxes to incubate. Eight days after the snails emerge from their eggs, they are transferred outdoors into the snail pens.
It seems that the rearing of snails, escargots, cagouilles or hélix (how many names do they have?) is a very serious business. 35 – 40,000 tons of snails are consumed in France but only 1,000 tons are farmed here, the rest are foraged or imported from Eastern Europe or Turkey.
M de Meis is not certified organic, but doesn’t use any pesticides in the fields and only feeds the snails organic feed. Snails absorb and retain pesticides and therefore, even if they are collected in the wild, can be found to have as many as 15 different toxic chemicals in their bodies.
At the end of the visit, we go into his office where he sells his snails. There are some in the freezer prepared in the way we know best, with butter, parsley and garlic, but there also jars of snails on shelves that he has prepared himself and cooked in a court-bouillon, in a tomato sauce, a spicy sauce, with cèpes, with girolles, there is even a snail butter spread for toast! I buy a jar of snails in bouillon and a jar of his homemade Provençal sauce and thank him for the visit. M. de Meis tells me he often has summer soirées in his field and he promises to invite me when he next hosts one. No prizes for guessing whats on the menu!
Later I cook the snails for The Artist and Fred, our French neighbour, for his approval. I heat up the snails in their bouillon and add them to the Provençal tomato sauce. I then cook up some fresh pasta and serve the sauce with the pasta. Fred gives it his authentication; they taste just like grandmère’s used to!
For more reading on snail farming and recipes you can go to the French site http://heliciculture.escargot-blond-des-flandres.com/index.php.
If this story has affected you in any way, please leave a comment, by clicking on the word ‘comment’ below.