When the rains come to Western Europe every fall, gardeners start preparing for the onslaught of a perennial adversary, the snail. Pest experts emerge to offer such advice as copper sheet linings and vinegar spray to keep the mollusks from consuming vineyards and vegetables and invading homes. This fall in Cuba, a plague of giant African snails had epidemiologists scrambling to find ways to limit the spread of the massive and disease-ridden shell-housed slugs, which grow to more than eight inches in length and can feed on a home’s stucco walls. For an animal that moves at about .01 miles per hour, these slick little troublemakers sure do get around.
But a group in Cherasco, in Italy's Piedmont region, is dedicated to the opposite goal: to multiply these often useful and always delicious invertebrates in the most efficient way possible. In September of this year, the International Institute of Heliciculture in Cherasco held their 48th annual meeting in this region of Italy better known for its Nebbiolo, truffles and the Slow Food movement (which of course uses the snail as its symbol). As it turns out, snails aren’t just for Chablis anymore. The Cherasco conference draws escargot enthusiasts from fields ranging from the culinary to the cosmetic, to pharmaceuticals and even alternative medicine.
The Institute of Heliciculture provides guidelines for the optimal husbandry of the Helix genus, or Helicidae, (which some taxonomists argue is actually its own family), proposing the size of the fields, the best snail-farming terroir, the crops that should be used and the varieties to be introduced. Specifically, the chiocciola metodo Cherasco (the Cherasco snail method) requires enclosures measuring 45 meters by 3.5 meters, divided into two areas: the first for reproduction, the second for fattening. The snails, they recommend, should snack on cabbage, chard, various other greens and sunflowers, all without the use of animal feed or any synthetic products. The guidelines suggest that the best species for breeding is the Aspersa, including the subspecies of Maxima and Muller.
From birth to harvest, their life cycle lasts 14 months. Self-fertilizing hermaphrodites, they lay their eggs in the birthing area and then freely migrate around the second field until they collectively reach the quantity of 440 pounds per paddock, at which point they are plucked up.
Today, the Institute’s snail-farming disciples can be found in Italy, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Germany, France, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Spain, Bosnia, Tunisia, Argentina, Hungary, Nigeria, South Africa, Lebanon and Jordan.
Not all of the creatures go straight into a grave of garlic and olive oil. German physiotherapists Marek and Dominika Anna Rozum, for example, believe the best use of snails is to employ them to “reactivate the natural flow of energy” in the human body. They rely on traditional acupuncture points, but replace the needles with live snails, combining the mollusk’s minute vibrations with manual massage using the empty snail shells.
One of the most lucrative products obtained from these slippery creatures is actually the slime. As worthless and unappetizing as it may appear, outside the kitchen, this viscous byproduct has extraordinary potential. Starting with the Ancients, snail drool has been collected to treat gastric illnesses such as ulcers, and also as a sedative for coughs. More recent studies have highlighted its antibacterial and moisturizing properties, and by now the stuff has oozed its way into an array of natural cosmetics. For the past decade it has been harvested using a machine called Muller One, which extracts the slime without killing the snails, allowing them to be released and repurposed, and that of course is great news for gourmands the world over.
In the kitchen, some of the more interesting interpretations of escargot can be sampled at MICHELIN-starred Da Francesco restaurant, located in an historic building in the center of Cherasco. There, amid frescoes dating back to the 1600s, chef Francesco Oberto, together with his wife Eleonora, serve creations that draw on eels, turbot, local truffles and of course, escargot.
Green snail salad with cassava chips and guacamole was on a recent menu. The snail shows a pleasant fleshy texture, releasing a delicate taste, accompanied by hints of cereals, vegetable aromas and in the finish, hints of fresh flowers.
Risotto with snails and black garlic, lemon zest and snail perlage also graced the recent menu. The scent recalls earthy aromas, evolving rapidly on delicate garlic notes that contrast with fresh citrus scents. The juicy texture of the snail goes perfectly with the al dente preparation of the rice.