Creepy-crawly makes it to luxury dining list

By Natalie Evans-Freke

The common garden snail may not seem appetising, but the French have raised it to a level of luxury and international renown. Viva visits a farm where production is not as slow as you might expect.

Snail farmer Cyril Santos at his farm outside Uzes. Photo / Babiche Martens
Snail farmer Cyril Santos at his farm outside Uzes. Photo / Babiche Martens

There are two approaches to eating creepy creatures, no matter how common the creature might be.

At one end of the spectrum you find people on their OE being dared to eat fried cockroaches from a street vendor in Southeast Asia. At the other end, it is an expensive candlelit meal of escargots in an intimate restaurant with views of the Eiffel Tower. To the Western mind such food seems to be either disgusting or revered.

All, it seems, is needed for a creepy-crawly to make the luxury list is a mention of the word "France", a place where even force-feeding geese is considered more an art form than an unethical old-school practice. So while in France I took the opportunity to learn more about raising snails.

Though a snail farmer has the snazzy title of "heliciculturist" the man who enlightens me in this field of work is more simply named Cyril Santos.

He is a Spaniard who moved to France to breed our slow-moving friends. I meet him in the shed he built for the purposes of selling and cooking the snails. There's a peculiarly sweet aroma in the air - and inside the shed is the tiny one woman snail-plucking production line. Indeed, for the rest of my life, when people talk about the glamour of eating escargots in fancy Parisian eateries, I will always think back to that scene; a woman plucking the molluscs from their shells and tossing them to the other side of a stainless steel bench.

I am not here to fall under the spell of her repetitive rhythm of pluck toss, pluck toss, but there is something about the act that reminds me of squatters being thrown out of buildings.

Poor snails. Take me to the farm now, please. I want to see life.

The farm is about the size of a large netball court and divided into six sections, bordered by 30cm fences. Within these fences, looking like lanes of an Olympic swimming pool, are rows of raised wooden planks that, when lifted, reveal how many snails live here. At any given time of the season there are, says Santos, around 280,000.

To stop any funny business, 2.20 volts of electricity go off at the top of the fences every second to keep the snails in.

Despite this, thousands clamber slowly up. Santos explains these fleshy little characters "have no intelligence, whatsoever" but part of me disagrees. I think they can smell their friends and family being steamed in garlic and butter in the kitchen next door and are trying to get over the fence to their natural environment - a last bid for freedom.

Santos farms two types of snail: the big grey, which originates from North Africa and can grow to an incredible 30cm, and the eastern European type, the Burgundy, which Santos explains is becoming rarer due to loss of natural habitat.

In all honesty, there isn't really that much to know about the Burgundy or the big grey. The beauty of their existence seems to be valued much more after they have been packed into jars with various herbs and sent off to restaurants around France.

What is interesting though, is how the planet's current state of affairs regarding over-population and not enough food has led the United Nations to state that people should start eating bugs on a regular basis in order to save the planet.

Okay, so they didn't mention snails in there, maybe because a snail isn't even a bug at all. Cockroaches, locusts and grasshoppers did make the list, so perhaps it's time to get the French on the bugged-out bandwagon?

In the end, anything tastes good when doused in garlic and butter - especially with views of the Eiffel Tower.

* Photographer Babiche Martens flew Cathay Pacific to Paris. Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland to Paris, via Hong Kong. Special business and economy class fares are available to Paris.

- NZ Herald

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