When did you start breeding snails ?
My wife Sylvie and I began in 2004, alongside our activity in the building trade. We wanted to have a more stable, sedentary profession and snail breeding was the perfect answer. We became interested in snail caviar afterwards. A production had been attempted in the 1980s via pasteurization but it failed for lack of quality. The egg remained hard when bitten and the producer added an orgeat or almond flavour that killed the taste. For lack of sufficient documentation, I had to invent everything, from the production to the recipe. When pasteurized, the original taste of the snail’s egg disappeared. So I came up with a recipe. My wife went to do a four month course in the Doubs department and got her farming diploma with a snail breeding specialization. I personally did a short apprenticeship at the same place. It’s a full time job and very all-round, encompassing production, processing and marketing.
How do you work ?
To breed snails you have to invent everything! You have to be a good handyman because there is no specific equipment other than the electric fencing. Furthermore, no two snail farms are alike. We breed the famous Gros-gris snail (helix aspersa maxima), which comes from North Africa and is the same size as the Bourgogne snail. The Gros-gris is perfectly suited to breeding, unlike the Bourgogne, which is a solitary snail that does not survive breeding. In the beginning, we bought spats from breeder farms. The first year, we put them in pens in spring and after six months we keep some in a cold room, to repopulate the pens. The work is difficult because everything is manual: the daily feed, surveillance (predators, pest control), pen upkeep (no weedkillers), collection, slaughter (boiling the snails), shelling, dressing, grading, cooking in a court-bouillon, counting, packing in jars and commercialization. For the fresh product, you have to re-shell the snail then stuff it with butter...
How to do you make snail caviar ?
For the snail caviar, we made egg-laying non seasonal. Instead of laying eggs in spring, we trigger four production cycles a year, in a room with optimum light, temperature and hygrometry conditions. As a result, the production is evenly spread over the year. To keep the product’s flavour and delicacy, I found a recipe that is as natural as possible, avoiding pasteurization. It allows us to keep the egg in a hot liquid (bouillon) and deepen its flavour. To preserve the eggs, I use brine with Guerande fine sea salt, rosemary essence, starch and a touch of citric acid. We get a shelf-life of three months by doing this. We are working on a shelf-life of six months. We are HACCP-certified in terms of health and hygiene, with ISO 22000 certification for our laboratory shortly. In addition, our process allows us to soften the egg without altering its flavour and texture. To explain its taste, you might compare it to a “stroll in the woods after the rain”. We produce about 200 kg/year (from our 60,000 snails), given that a snail lays about a hundred eggs per year (or 4g). We plan to produce 600 kg next year.
Who are your clients ?
Snail caviar requires a huge amount of preparation work: cleaning the snails, removing excrement and dead snails, installing egg-laying traps, sorting eggs manually under a magnifying glass (1 hour per kilo), the processing stage, bottling, labelling, marketing, etc. The heavy manual work explains the retail price of €2,000/kg. It is a product with a limited shelf life that must be stored at 4C°. We are the only people in the world making this product by this method of production. I sell to an upmarket clientele – top restaurants, famous delicatessens in France and abroad - via wholesalers at Rungis. I sell the snail meat to consumers...
How ios the the snail market doing ?
About 90% of French consumption is imported. Almost all of these are hand-picked snails. They include the Bourgogne snail (helix pomatia) and the Turkish snail (helix lucorum). France is the leading country for snail breeding with 290 breeders. It is a limited market that could develop if breeders were willing to pool their resources. In the years ahead, the market should be better positioned in terms of price.
What do you think of Rungis Market ?
Rungis is currently our largest outlet. We supply a wholesaler positioned in upmarket products, both for retail and export, which makes us known around the world. From our standpoint, it is a key market and we have been there since September 2007.
Son of an agricultural engineer (Ministry of Agriculture), Dominique Pierru (aged 43) was born in Vervins-en-Thierache, the youngest of seven children. After leaving school at 17, he held various jobs (gas station attendant, sales rep, supermarket floor manager, builder, etc.) before rallying to the call of the snail business.