French snails on the menu; a well-travelled French concept28-11-2017
An essential part of French gastronomy,
escargots or edible snails, are a popular dish for a fair few curious foodies across the globe, always on the look-out for new flavours
So why do the French eat snails? Like frog’s legs, the snail-eating cliché never ceases to amaze foreign foodie counterparts. And France is the world’s biggest consumer of snails. This very particular craving finds its roots in gastronomic tradition dating all the way back to the Renaissance. At the time, the more privileged echelons of society had become accustomed to dining on snails, while keeping their food fetish a closely-guarded secret. Winemakers in the Bourgogne region heard about the trend on the grapevine and started to collect and transport large quantities of the delicacy to Paris, home of the Royal Court. Over time, snails from the Burgundy region became true celebrities in their own right, to the extent that the whole of Europe was keen to try them too. Snail eating became more mainstream, and authentic escargots de Bourgogne increasingly rare as other species gained in popularity and new recipes came to the fore. Today, cagouilles, as they are known fondly in Bourgogne, are enjoyed on a global scale. While the French lead the snail eating table and devour 16,000 tonnes every year, they also specialise in farming, processing and shipping. As the festive season approaches, it’s a busy time of year for the sector, with two-thirds of all snail consumption concentrated over this short season.
From farm to fork
There are currently around 400 snail farms in France. Farms are tasked with overseeing the breeding, rearing, feeding and delivery of these gastropods to restaurants, hotels and multiple grocers. Snails reproduce in specially-adapted spaces and are fed on cereals. They are allowed to complete their growth out in the fields. The two main edible species are Helix aspersa maxima and Helix aspersa aspersa, otherwise known as large grey and small grey.
Denis Petit, Burgundy heliculturalist
The French héliciculture sector is mainly concentrated in eastern France, in Bourgogne in particular. It is here that Denis Petit, originally from Paris, decided to set down roots. He currently heads up Escargotiere Bourguignonne, a family business of which he took control five years ago. “The snails are delivered when only 7-days old and I take care of the rest”, the snail farmer explains. “The secret to the success of snail farming is taking care not to exceed the recommended density per square metre so that the snails are not compromised”. It certainly seems to be doing the trick for Denis Petit. He sells his large grey variety to Paris’s top luxury establishments. The Ritz, Bristol and Prince de Galles are all regular customers. “60% of our production goes to luxury hotels”, explains the snail farmer based in Cruzy-le-Chatel, near Chablis. He also takes pride in shipping to a number of reputed establishments further afield. “We work in Hong Kong and Japan with the Shangri-La luxury hotel chain. We sell raw snails and leave the preparation to them”. Since the beginning of April, Denis Petit has been promoting speciality snails from a food truck in Place du père CHAILLET, métro VOLTAIRE PARIS 11th arrondissement. “We sell our snails direct to the consumer, and offer tastings of the heated product too. A large number of tourists come to the food truck given our intrinsically French identity. For them, it’s almost a rite of passage to taste snails.”
L’Escargotiere Bourguignonne offers a variety of snail-centric processed products. Among them, the classic dish of snails cooked in butter, garlic, parsley and shallots, snail and mushroom casserole, snail soup with urchins and the ever-popular snail sausage Chablisienne.
Groupe Francaise de Gastronomie, the world’s leading snail company
While many companies are keen to blow the proverbial snail trumpet in foreign fields, the Groupe Francaise de Gastronomie company currently leads the way in frozen snail sales. The company has specialised in fresh and frozen foods since 1990, including snail-based dishes. Since the very outset, the company has made it its mission to sell Bourgogne-style snail recipes, among other snail-centric dishes. “Snails are a recognisable symbol of French gastronomy, and showcase genuine know-how, and as such, it was interesting to ship this speciality beyond France” explains Patrick Jagut, CEO, who points out that his snails are “hand-shelled and prepared in butter”. Their main customers are importers, multiple grocers and restaurants, from Benelux, Japan, United States, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and relatively recently China, who are warming to this French speciality. Clearly all go for the French escargot.