"Do your children think snails 'meow' like Gary on Spongebob? . . . It's time to re-establish some certain truths." So says the local tourism brochure in France's La Perche region, with an unexpected air of severity on the subject of snail farming.
That's right: snail farming. The proper name for this practice is heliculture. The pro-snail education pamphlet in question comes courtesy of Les Escargots du Perche, a farm which offers tours and is based in the town of Prèaux-du-Perche.
Frustrated with Parisian big city life and newly married to a Percheron woman, farm owner Philippe Couvreur left the corporate world behind and headed to the blissfully untouched region of Le Perche. The region is a lovely escape in the southern half of Normandy, called Basse-Normandy. Quiet even by Normand standards, its fertile landis better known for the large silver draft horses that hail from there - Percheron - than for its own merits. But this beautiful region lends itself well to the raising of escargot, the Gallic delicacy.
The finished product. — Photo courtesy of Mediadahling on FlickrIn 2000, Philippe took some classes on snail raising, to prepare himself for the drastic life change. The farm was up and running one year later. These days he sells over 400,000 snails weekly. Philippe is so gifted in his field that he even developed his own breed of snail, hélix aspersa maxima. This grey snail breed is twice the size of the traditional Burgundy variety and far more tender. They also mature and are ready for harvest faster.
Search all the world over and you will not find a more advanced heliculture laboratory. Once Couvreur's snails are 3 weeks old, they are placed in a climate-controlled environment until reaching 6 months. They are fed a healthy diet of local grains and vegetables. The snails are removed from feeding for a couple of days in order to "clear them out." (We'll let you figure out what that means.)
The snails are boiled briefly to kill them; cooked; and frozen for later use . . . or immediately made into one of Couvreur's numerous retail products. When visiting the farm, you can taste the many ways he prepares them, for only a 2€ tasting fee.
There are jars of snails for preparing at home, escargot confit, and pâté d'escargot. The pâté is quite lovely, consisting of 50% escargot, rich Normandy butter, creme fraiche, parsley, garlic (but not as much as you may expect,) shallot, and black pepper. Served warm and spread onto fresh baguette it is a wonderful starter or late afternoon treat.
The farm is open for sales Monday through Saturday 9am to noon, and reopens 2pm until 6pm. You can come and visit the farm and see the snails April 15th to October 15th by appointment during these hours. It is also open Sundays for groups. They even have a nocturnal visit every Wednesday in July and August at 9pm. Tel: +33 2 33 25 91 79 http://www.escargots-du-perche.com/ 3€ adult 2€ child over 12.