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FRENCH SNAILS FOOD & COOKING ARTICLE

Models and sculptures of snails everywhere . . .
Models and sculptures of snails everywhere . . .
A snail laying its eggs
A snail laying its eggs
Snail babies
Snail babies
Breeding snails
Breeding snails
Beatrice explains the snail pens
Beatrice explains the snail pens

French Snail Farm . . . how snails are bred in France
by Gemma Driver

Snails are such a French associated speciality, and are often ordered from menus by tourists due to the novelty factor. The French eat them because they can be very tasty and satisfying, but where do they actually come from?

Well, snails that are eaten in France are not all gathered from the wild, although a lot are . . . in Greece. Some are bred on one of France's two hundred snail farms. I visited snail breeders, Beatrice and Pierre Fouquet, to find out how their snails come to be.

We rung the bell and looked around while we waited. Hiding in the undergrowth, everywhere we looked, were models and sculptures of snails in different sizes and styles. A smiling Beatrice came over to us, and started to show us around. Firstly, she took us to the breeding room. It was fascinating! We learned that although snails are hermaphrodites, they need to mate - for around twelve hours - in order to breed. Their sexual organs are where you might expect their ears to be, and 3 weeks after mating, they stick their head into a pot of earth, and spend a further twelve hours laying their one hundred or so eggs. Another three weeks on and the eggs, rather than hatching, actually turn into snails.

Finally, after a week of snaildom, the babies are taken to the netted, domed pens, where they will live for around four months, until they are fully mature adults, ready to be eaten. Radishes are sown in the pens, and their leaves serve as both food and hiding places for the snails, and the whole ecosystem is sprayed with water once a day.

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The "breed" of snail is the Gros Gris, which originates in North Africa, and we were surprised at how large they are - their bodies around three inches long. Their cousins, the Petit Gris or garden snail, are the wild, native snails which are gathered and eaten in France and Britain.

Some snails from L'Escargot du Perigord are sold live to restaurants and private customers, but 80% are prepared and cooked by Pierre and Beatrice. This takes a lot of work. The snails are killed by being plunged into boiling water. (I did ask Beatrice if that had caused any problems for her. "What kind of problems?". "Um, worry about being unkind to the snails". She laughed at my English sensibilities, and explained that it was very quick, and better than the slow deaths of the olden days, when snails were smothered in salt and vinegar and left to ooze to death.

Next, each snail is individually gutted, before being washed in salt and vinegar, and boiled in stock for an hour and a half. Some snails go into the Fouquet's pates, preserves, hors d'oeuvres and tasty re-heatable dishes, while others are stuffed back into shells and covered with garlic and parsley butter, for baking in a hot oven until bubbling and browned. Beatrice and Pierre still eat and taste snails regularly, and Beatrice favours her preserved "Saute d'Escargots aux Pleurottes", which is snails in a sauce with mushrooms, creme fraiche and tarragon.

I asked how and why the Fouquets started their snail farm;

"We started up fifteeen years ago. I am from Paris and Pierre is from the Charente but we both went to agricultural college near Perpignan, where we met. After graduating, we found it hard to find work in that region, and Pierre worked on the sowing of sunflowers for six years, while I did agricultural consulting work all over the place. We only saw each other at weekends. After coming on holiday to Perigord and falling in love with the area, we decided to settle here, and wanted to set something up so that we were our own bosses and so that we could live and work together. We also wanted to do something a bit unusual. We had the advantage of me coming into contact with all different kinds of farms through my work, and we decided on snails."

The ultimate rustic French supper - Saute d'Escargots aux Pleurottes with potato gratin
The ultimate rustic French supper - Saute d'Escargots aux Pleurottes with potato gratin

Do you still enjoy it?

"Oh yes! Everyday is different. And we sometimes forget our mistakes and make them again, which keeps things interesting! We have regular customers, we do chambres d'hotes, and we don't answer to anyone. We wouldn't want to change our lives or work."

The Fouquet's customers come from all over France and some order their snail goodies through the post. Others are regular customers at the farm shop or the markets in Thiviers (every Saturday morning) and Branteme (each Tuesday between 15th June and 15th September). The farm also offers visits and tastings throughout the summer. It is a fantastic place to take children . . . and grown-ups!

We took home a tin of the Saute d'Escargot's aux Pleurottes, snails with garlic and parsley butter, in pastry shells, and a snail terrine.

© Gemma Driver 2005

This article was written by Gemma Driver, a food writer and consultant, who is passionate about the French way of life and now lives in the Dordogne after moving to France several years ago.

The Gastropod is the home of Gemma Driver on the internet. Stuffed with foodie advice, lush photos, intriguing projects and addictive articles, this slick site will have your brain inspired and your mouth watering - www.gastropod.co.uk

This article first appeared on the web site FrenchEntrée.com

Published 18 May 2005

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