Like head cheese, boiled goat, and okra, snails are not the kind of food that leaves you indifferent. You either love ’em or loathe ’em. Perhaps it’s the image of the creature leaving its characteristic trail of slime behind it as it edges it way along the ground that puts many off. Images of slime and dirt don’t actually whet the appetite. Who knows where that thing has been and what it’s carrying? one might ask.
- Which actually turns out to be a very good question to ask of the snails you’re about to buy or eat. Many a tourist in France (not the mention the French themselves) would be shocked to know that a good percentage of the snails that are purported to have been picked from the wild actually were gathered with few if any quality controls in places rather distant from Burgundy. Say, Belarus. If they were ever collected from the fields at all. As the Telegraph reports, 40% of the snails sold in France are actually chopped up pieces of half-kilo-large African or Chinese monster gastropods.
Greece has been spared such problems, since until quite recently snails were very much a small-scale local and seasonal product that was gathered wild from the fields. In the last few years, organized snail cultivation has taken a foothold in the country. There are now roughly 20 cultivators in the country, thanks in part to subsidies from the Ministry of Agricultural Development which can total up to 60% of the initial investment and in part to Fereikos Helix, a company established in Corinth in 2007 which serves as the official representative of the (Italian) International Institute for Heliciculture. The firm provides farmers with expertise on starting a cultivation unit and a contractual guarantee for the purchase of the final product.
Fereikos (from the Greke fere, to bring or carry, and oikos, home, an apt moniker for a company involved in snail farming) and the cultivators that work with it subscribe to a model of free-range, biological-cycle organic farming. Unlike conventionally cultivated snails that are raised in trays in hothouses and fed with cereal meal, these snails grow to maturity in open-pasture enclosures and graze on pesticide-free living food crops like clover, radish and wild greens.
The Fereikos products, which the organization introduced last year, come from Greek free-range Helix aspersa snails and can be found fresh, frozen and bottled in a light brine. Though traditionally served in Greece as a stew with pearl onions and tomatoes or bourbouristo, braised with wine, thyme, bay and vinegar (a wonderful mezes for Cretan raki), snails are finding their way into the repertoire of contemporary Greek cuisine in dishes such as a saffron-scented fricassee of wild greens finished in a egg and lemon sauce or in souvlaki threaded with cherry tomatoes and roasted red pepper. Yum!