After visiting the Bresse region, I took a train across the country to Brittany. After the train track ran out, I was forced to rent a car for the last part of my journey. Luckily France has a wonderful ride sharing website called Blah Blah car where I was able to pick up a few passengers, help cover the cost of fuel and have some company to boot.
My first stop in Brittany was in Goulien near the coastal town of Cap’Sizun. I arrived in the region in the evening and enjoyed a classic galette, the savory buckwheat crepe famous in the Brittany region, accompanied by a small bowl of the local cider by the crystal blue seaside. I spent that night in a lovely bed and breakfast in the process of being taken over by some new owners. We got to talking and I found out that they are also planning to homestead on the property and had already begun to prep a vegetable garden and restore the small fruit orchard that was there. We spent a lovely evening discussing farming and sustainability over some wine and it was a wonderful chance meeting.
In the morning, I woke up early and made my way down the road to the Cap’Helix Escargot Farm, owned by Didier and Jeannick Bonis. The morning was quite rainy and I found the two farmers elbow deep in the kitchens. Jeannick took me out for a tour of the shade houses and the rest of the farm. The snails were very active due to the cloudy conditions, sliming around their lush carpet of emerald green clover. We had to be careful not to step on the little creatures, moving them from underfoot to navigate around the house. It was a pretty incredible sight to see all of the snails happily going about their morning business in the drizzle.
Didier and Jeannick started their farm in 1993 and became the first certified escargot farm in France. They then went on to write the guidelines for organic production of snails. Over 25,000 tons of snails are consumed annually in France but less than 5 % of those are actually produced in the country. Most of the world’s snails are produced in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Rather than the delicate species preferred for consumption, these farms raise large, hardy, fast growing species such as the African land snail that can grow larger than an adult man’s fist! The large snails are then cut up to better resemble the smaller varieties though the meat is much coarser.
Cap’Helix raise petite gris snails, one of the smaller and most delicate varieties. The raising of these creatures is quite labor intensive, especially organically. Each snail is required to have 35 square centimeters, live on pesticide free soil and consume a natural and organic diet. In addition most snail farms use electric shock to keep the snails from escaping or climbing the walls. The snails here are free to roam inside their enclosures with no fear of electrocution.
The season really begins in August when the adult breeding snails are chosen from the farm’s population and moved into a cold hibernation room. During this time the snails do not eat and they barely move. In February the adults are moved into the breeding room which is quite hot and has a humidity level over 90%. The snails quickly wake up from their long slumber and almost immediately begin to copulate. Copulation can last between 12 and 24 hours during which DNA is exchanged and each snail becomes “pregnant”. Snails are neither male nor female so both will lay eggs. About three weeks later small planter pots filled with soil are added into the room. Each snail chooses a pot, makes a nest and lays an average of 100 eggs. The eggs are then removed from the pots and placed inside sterile petri dishes and put inside an incubation chamber where they will remain until they hatch. This is a difficult step in the process and the farmers expect to lose about 10% of the population between egg laying and hatching.
While all of this is taking place inside, outside preparations are being made as well. Cap’Helix has 4 large shade structures where the snails are raised. Each structure has net to keep out predators such as rodents, lizards and local species of snails and slugs. These nets are inspected and repaired each season. After that hedgehogs are released inside the structures to get rid of any snails or slugs that may have found their way inside during the winter. Once the coast is clear, the hedgehogs are removed, radish and clover seeds are put down in a thick carpet and the growing structures are installed. These structures consist of wooden boards that the snails can hide under during the sunny summer days. The untreated boards also hold moisture which makes the surface easier for the snails to navigate. The top of the structures serve as the daily buffet for the supplemental organic cereals and grains as well as pulverized marine limestone. Once the baby snails are released, it will take between 4 and 6 months for them to reach a harvestable size. Starting in July the largest snails are harvested, each has to be chosen and collected by hand for consistent size. The snails are then moved into crates indoors where they must spend 2 weeks without eating to remove all food and feces from their digestive system.
Some of the 250,000 snails raised here at Cap’Helix are wholesaled to restaurants but the majority are sold either frozen or canned. Since the harvest period is so short, just a few months a year, the vast majority must be preserved for later sale. The Bonises are talented cooks and spend many rainy days in the kitchen whipping up everything from au naturale snails in the shells to spicy snail soups in a can.
Cooking and preserving the snails is also quite a tedious project. Each snail is parboiled inside the shell. The meat is removed from the shell and the part of the body that holds it to the shell is cut away. The meat is then put back into the water for further cooking and the shell is cleaned by hand. It’s a lot to go through for a little snail and I for one had no idea it was so involved.
After my tour of the small family farm and some time spent in the kitchen, we had lunch. The main feature was of course snails and I had the pleasure of trying several of the products that Cap’Helix has on offer, all of which were delicious. I have always loved escargot and after watching all of the work that goes into raising and preparing them, I appreciated them even more. After lunch, my new found respect in tow, I went back out to the shade structures to say goodbye to the now dozing snails. This journey really has been an incredible introduction to how food is grown around the world. Meeting the Bonises and seeing their beautiful farm was truly a treat. If any of you are interested in visiting, they have a campground on the property where you can spend the night.
Please visit http://escargots.caphelix.pagesperso-orange.fr/caphelixescargots_005.htm for more information about the farm and their products.
Up next; a sustainable oyster farm in Cancale and a visit with a truly inspiring chef.