A shortage of snails for consumption in European countries such as France, Italy and Spain, where they are viewed as a delicacy, is fuelling growth in snail farming in Ireland.
There are now an estimated 20 small scale producers in Ireland, up from just six this time last year, according to Sean McGloin of the National Organic Training Skillnet (NOTS), which is organising a two-day national seminar on snail production in Tullamore on Monday and Tuesday (November 20th-21st).
“On average there is an annual shortfall of 100,000 tons of snail meat in Europe,” McGloin says.
With demand exceeding supply in Europe, and possible new markets opening up in the Middle East and Africa, there is growing interest in the alternative farm enterprise, which offers high yields and can be undertaken on as little as one acre of land.
According to Eva Milka, who in 2014 became the first person to farm snails commercially in Ireland, one acre can produce 10 tons of snail meat a year (the cycle is 10 months). Sold live, this crop is worth €40,000, and will have cost around €20,000 to produce, she says.
The global market for edible snails is worth €1 billion, according to NOTS, with the French and Italian markets accounting for €300 million. France imports more than 80 per cent of its escargot requirements and Italy imports 60 percent, leading to an export potential valued at around €200 million, which Irish farmers are responding to.
Along with growth, Ireland’s fledgling snail farming industry is already undergoing change. Several farmers are seeking to add value to their harvest by putting them through a production process, rather than exporting them live.
Milka, who set up her company, Gaelic Escargot in Co Carlow, after a small-scale experiment with rearing the common brown snail (Helix aspersa muller) in her apartment in Kilkenny city, says her "business model changed completely" this year.
This was in response to interest from chefs and buyers, from Singapore and Dubai, who she met at the Food On The Edge symposium in Galway in 2016. “They tasted our snails and were very impressed with the quality and taste, but when we told them we sold our product fresh, they were not interested in buying.”
Bottled in brine
She estimates that her company will generate 10 times as much revenue this year from the 10 tons of snail meat it produces – by sending it to Greece to be bottled in brine and shipped back to her in 1kg jars. “The chefs want something pre-cooked, but as bland as possible, so they can add their own flavours into the dish.”
Even allowing for transport and production costs, she estimates that her net return will be five times what it was last year, when she sold live snails in bulk to European markets. She says that it was not possible to have the snails processed here.
Just 2 per cent of Milka's snails are sold in Ireland, where they are distributed to restaurants by La Rousse Foods, but that might be about to change when this year's crop goes on sale next month.
“More and more chefs here are willing to experiment with such unusual produce, and Fallon & Byrne has expressed interest in the jars,” she says. They will also be sold online via her company’s website.
At Michelin-starred restaurant Heron & Grey in Blackrock, Co Dublin, chef Damien Grey serves Gaelic Escargot in a dish with spinach and chervil root, as part of the tasting menu. "One of the biggest problems with snails is the appearance of them, because as far as flavour goes they're quite tasty and have a lovely earthy, quite mild flavour, so I have taken the approach of chopping them up."
Customer resistance is still an issue, at least for some diners, he says. “They freak out as soon as they see snails on the menu. Then Andrew [Heron, joint owner and manager] has to go through the process of reassuring them that once they get into the dish, they’ll realise there is nothing to be afraid of, and they’re really tasty and easy to eat.”
In Castlebar, Co Mayo, Pauline Durkan began farming snails three years ago, and is now in the process of developing a nutritional supplement made with the meat. "I was looking for something to do in my retirement from nursing," she says, and having initially sold her snails to local hotels and restaurants, she looked for a way to add value to them.
“The meat is dehydrated and ground into a very fine powder, and, like any protein powder, it is very smooth and easy to mix. It has a mild taste and will take on other flavours. I’m going for chocolate, strawberry and vanilla,” she says of the supplement, which is now in a research and development phase at Teagasc’s Ashtown Food Research Centre in Dublin 15.