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A snail's pace

A snail's pace

How many of us dream of leaving behind meaningless jobs to live in harmony with the land? Sophie and Jacques Servant, born and bred in Poitou-Charentes, did just that. Ten years after setting up Niou d'Hélix they told us what living at a snail's pace is like... 

They may be slow-moving creatures, but farming snails, demands speed and organisation, especially when the farm is organic. Hidden in a woody dell near Ardin. in Deux-Sèvres, the Servants raise baby snails to adulthood in an environment that is as true to nature as possible. No poly-tunnels or bare earth compounds here - everything is green, and the snails live outdoors as they would if they were wild.

Snails are organisms that absorb and pass onto the consumer any toxins they touch; so it's important to know where the snails on your plate come from. Although putting them on a two-week fast will eliminate any toxic substances they may have eaten, heavy metals and pesticides stay in their flesh. So if you know your snails have been reared on an organic farm, you're safe. I now shudder when I see early-morning risers combing the roadside vines with plastic bags after summer showers: the snails may be wild, but that doesn't make them more wholesome.

snails 1

 Puychereau, home to the Niou d’Hélix snails, is a beautiful, remote spot: a stream runs along the bottom of the wooded valley, supplying water for the former lavoir as well as the snails. The traditional stone house, which has been in Jacques' family since 1894, nestled between two steep-sided hills, and a renovated stone outbuilding, has been converted into a farm shop. The snails themselves live on the hill beside the Servants' house in a 1000-square metre enclosure. It is open to the skies and has wooden planks placed at an angle on the ground for them to shelter beneath. The compound is planted with the snails' favourite vegetables: radish, cabbage, clover and grass. Beside the snails live their neighbours - the chickens and ducks – in another free-range plot. Poultry play a vital role in the organic snail-rearing process.

It was Sophie who first set up the farm. The daughter of paysans, she nursed a dream of being a farmer throughout her childhood. However, it was her brother who took on the family farm, so she had to resign herself to finding other work. She tried a series of enterprises - from medical secretary to driving instructor to estate agency - but failed to find the fulfilment she was seeking. It was only in 1999, in her mid-thirties, that she fell upon the idea of creating a snail farm. She firmly believed that her decision was purely logical, so imagine her surprise when distant relations, on a visit to Sophie's farm, showed her a photograph of her great-grandfather working with snails back in 1920. It would seem, after all, that snails are in her blood. A year of work as a snail-farmer was enough to disprove the general belief that snail farming is an easy way of making money. There was too much work for one person, so she called upon her husband Jacques, who has agricultural qualifications and also wanted to pursue a farming career to assist her. Sophie's initiative was the ideal opportunity for him to fulfil his own agricultural dreams and the couple united to form the family snail business.

Helix pomatia

There are three main species of snail reared in France. The bourgogne (helix pomatia), is probably the best known, but is rare in Poitou-Charentes. More common are the petit-gris (helix aspersa) with its white nesh and the gros-gris (helix aspersa maxima) with its black nesh, both of which are farmed by Sophie and Jacques. We must thank the Greeks and Romans for the presence of petit-gris in Western Europe. They brought them over by boat from their original habitat of north Afica and kept them in parks. However, many escaped and colonised the area. The gros-gris has only been in Europe for a hundred years, and as the cages were better; fewer 

snail 3 helix aspersa

escaped and they are therefore less common in the wild. Although the Greeks and Romans reared snails, modern snail- farming is a relatively new industry, dated by Jacques at around 25 years old. The snails traditionally eaten by the French were either imported from the Mediterranean countries or collected in the wild. National research studies were carried out in the eighties and snail-farming has progressively increased since then. So what does a snail-farmer do? The Servants' business is made up of three parts: rearing the snails, creating snail-based products and commercialising these products. The six-month rearing cycle starts at the beginning of April when they buy the one-day old snails from a specialist snail producer. At this age they are smaller than a fingernail and their shells are transparent. These babies are placed in the snail park where they collect under untreated pine boards. The enclosure has spent the winter being cleaned by chickens rather than weed-killers; the poultry eat any remaining plants and snails from the previous season, and then the plot is planted with new food for the coming season.




The snails must reach adulthood before the first frosts of October in order for them to be harvested. Getting them to grow to adulthood in this space of time is the delicate part of rearing, since so much is dependent on the weather. Ideally, they like a temperature of between 15 and 25°C, with cool nights. If it is too hot, they go into summer hibernation, which means their growth slows down and they don't become adults before winter arrives. So, to avoid summer hibernation they are regularly hosed down with water. From August to October each snail is checked individually to see whether it is adult, this is done by examining the edge of its shell, which curves into a lip when the snail stops growing.

Once adult, the snails are collected and put into cages to fast for two weeks, which sends them to sleep while any toxins are eliminated. Next come the transformation stages. These take place under strict hygiene controls in special laboratories around the Deux-Sèvres, and begin by the sleeping snails being dunked into boiling water. After being boiled for ten minutes, they are taken out of their shells by hand and then frozen.

The freezer is a practical invention; it means that Jacques and Sophie can carry out their cooking and conserving work little by little throughout the year. Everything must be ready for October, when the number of gastronomic exhibitions increases and customers buy their snails ready for New Year's Day. This is the commercialisation phase of snail-farming, which also happens on a smaller scale all year round via various markets and shops.

snail 1 helix pomatiaIt's during these activities that Sophie and Jacques reap the rewards for their efforts. 'There's nothing like seeing a person's face change from scepticism to delight when they taste our snails,' says Jacques. Sophie adds that customers often have an anecdote to tell. 'There's a nostalgia associated with snails. Either people remember collecting them during their childhood or they remember the taste of their grandmother's favourite recipe,’ she says.

And, of course, snails are good for you. Their flesh is high in proteins and minerals, and low in lipids and calories. Beware, though, of the sauces they are traditionally served in: it is these that can make snails difficult to digest. Not only are snails appreciated for their nutritional content, they have always been used for medicinal purposes. During the war, it wasn't uncommon to eat them alive to counteract lung or gastric problems. Even today, certain bronchitis syrups contain snail derivatives. As Jacques reminds me, with his version of an old proverb: 'Mangez l'escargot le jour de l'an et vouz vivrez jusqu'à cent ans' (Eat snails on New Year's Day and you'll live to be a hundred).


WORDS: Teresa Hardy

Previously published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine

 PLEASE NOTE: The snail farm has closed since this article was written.