OK, I ate 89 escargots while in France. On the road trip back I tallied and that is the total. Possibly six were below average, but obviously not inedible. The rest were perfect. The accompanying bread served as a crispy crusted sponge for the garlicky parsleyed butter, and each dish was sent back to the kitchen gleaming clean. My classmates generally enjoyed the abandon with which I dove into the shallow snail cups, and those who were not inclined to enjoy theirs sent them my way. It would have been disgusting to another crowd, but since we're all attending the University of Gastronomic Sciences my delirium was not frowned upon; rather, it was celebrated, and I love that.
Part of our stage was a trip I'd waited my whole life for- we went to an escargot farm called L'Escarbelle in Thoisy-le-Desert which is in the Burgundy region. It is one of two small escargot producers in the area still operating and the other guy is ill, according to L'Escarbelle's owner, Isabelle Joly. Isabelle is a woman in her forties, I would guess, with bobbed wavy blonde hair and cheekbones that are as strong as her personality. She started her farm about seven years ago, originally intending to produce sheep's cheese. Her garden had become over-run by snails and a friend joked that she'd probably have better luck farming them- and she did. After five years with no profit she is finally able to rest occasionally. She produces 200-thousand escargots a year and she sells them all. She does no advertising, relying instead on word of mouth. She's able to spread the word well herself since she's an enthusiastic communicator with a gift for confidently exposing small weaknesses. (Once she thought an electric fence would deter potential escapees- instead she accidentally killed almost all her “livestock”).
The escargots are basically free-range, with a fenced in area about fifty feet by twenty. For a cow this might not qualify but it would take one of these snails a couple of days to do a lap. They get their exercise while grazing on clover, thistle, and rape- a plant with small yellow flowers and plenty of foliage. The day we visited the snails were still babies- still smaller than a pencil eraser. Snail reproduction- let's talk about it- it's as slow as you might imagine (if you ever imagined it before). Awesomely, they are hermaphroditic and in the spring they seem to be more in touch with their masculine side and become interested in reproducing. They get together and sort-of slowly spin around belly-to-belly until the correct organs match up. Once matched they are “in process” for forty-eight hours. Then both slide away carrying about a hundred eggs each. The breeding actually happens on Styrofoam in a lab somewhere, and Isabelle buys 100 snail eggs in a petri dish for one Euro and fifty cents. The tiny snails are brought to their new home in said petri dish and they will find plenty of greens and shade in their new paradise, along with slats of wood for them to attach underneath. Isabelle sprinkles these boards daily with lime for them to get calcium for their shells. This, she says, is the most labor intensive part of running the farm- next to the actual process of removing them from the shells for washing.
D-day for the escargots comes in the fall. They are collected in late August and September and are forced to fast for fifteen days to clean out their digestive system. Then they're put into a chilly place with fans where they instinctively hibernate. They can stay like this for a few months if the producer doesn't have time to process them right away. Isabelle then puts them into a netted nylon bag- similar to those you'd find holding potatoes at the grocery store. This is put into boiling water, then into cold water, and then comes the tedious part- pulling them from the shells. According to Isabelle, this part is pretty stinky.
There is more to the snail than we get in the restaurant, by the way. There is a curly bit of meat that coils into the shell; it is the snail's liver. Previously it was believed to be the intestines, and people would remove it for fear that the snail had eaten something poisonous while in the wild (also part of the reason for the pre-hibernation fasting). This part is still removed because the liver retains heavy metals and while this wouldn't be a problem at Isabelle's farm, many of the snails that we find on the market and in cans today come from Eastern Europe- more specifically from areas near enough to Chernobyl to arouse suspicion of nuclear accident left-overs. So we are left to wonder enviously as those “in the know” assure that is is an exceptional flavor that is shamefully missing from the landscape of the modern palate. And I find this mildly irritating.
So, Isabelle removes the liver and discards it, then stirs the escargots in a pot with salt and vinegar to remove the slime. They are rinsed, then par boiled, then put into fresh vinegar and salt, and rinsed again. She prepares a vegetable broth, adds snails, then jars them for sale. Others, she packs back into shells with the traditional garlic-butter-parsley mixture and freezes them. She says this is ok because they are protected by the butter fat from freezer issues. Otherwise, freezing is not an option for her.
Farming the escargot is a new adventure in agriculture (called Heliculture). Only twenty years old, really. Before that people would hunt for the snails out in vineyards- probably because the snails would benefit from the limestone soil in France. Over-hunting depleted the wild Helix Ponatia which is prized in Burgundy (in Southern France it is the Petit Grey). So much so, it became illegal to hunt wild snails for resale twenty years ago. There aren't many left still because of pesticides and the early over-hunting. Now there are three hundred snail producers in all of France- a few of which make up a large segment of the market because of enormous production numbers. France consumes 65-thousand tons of escargot, according to our lecture, many of which come from Eastern Europe. I'm not sure of this total includes shell weight, but I am proud to say that I did my part in adding to that total.