Monday 22 January 2018

Czech engineer farming at a snail's pace with his Irish food company

Marek Pokorny swapped his career in environmental engineering for one in snail farming. Now he hopes to sell his caviar in Irish and European restaurants , writes Louise McBride

Marek Pokorny, founder of Shamrock Escargots: ‘I took a risk with snail farming as I was stepping into the unknown’.
Marek Pokorny, founder of Shamrock Escargots: ‘I took a risk with snail farming as I was stepping into the unknown’.
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Marek Pokorny remembers the birth of his youngest daughter for an unusual reason. Pokorny, who runs his own snail farm in Co Kildare, imported his first 10,000 breeding snails from France in December 2015. He put these snails into hibernation for a couple of months - until February 2016 when he placed them into the breeding unit on his snail farm.

"Our first snail to lay eggs did so on February 18, 2016," says Pokorny. "I remember this as our third child, Isabelle, arrived on February 17. I am afraid to say both occasions were momentous for me - though I think my wife Marcella may only recall the baby!"

When Pokorny moved to Ireland in 2005, little did he know that he would eventually set up his own snail farm. Pokorny, from Tabor in the Czech Republic, initially worked as a plumber here.

He later qualified in civil and environmental engineering after pursuing studies. Although he worked as an environmental engineer after graduating, his contract finished in September 2015. A few months later, Pokorny swapped his career in engineering for one in snail farming.

"I had had snail farming in my head for some time," says Pokorny. "I had seen someone snail farming in the Czech Republic and had thought that it would be a great adventure to try it. In December 2015, I was still unemployed and relying on my wife's income. So I decided to take the risk and imported my first 10,000 breeding snails."

Pokorny turned the field in front of his family home in Ballycowan into a snail farm.

He built the snail farm himself, using his skills as a civil and environmental engineer. He also built the farm's 50-foot polytunnel (the snail breeding unit), the snails' hibernation unit, and a kitchen where he processes the snails himself - rather than export them live.

Building the breeding unit was a huge challenge, according to Pokorny. "I had to call on my neighbour and friend to help with holding the polythene sheets to cover it," he says.

The Czech man has since harvested 250,000 snails from the 10,000 originally imported. His company, Shamrock Escargots, is one of only four companies in Europe making marinated snail liver, according to Pokorny.

He also makes marinated snail fillets and snail caviar. He sells his snail caviar in 70g jars - at €85 a jar. "The caviar is expensive because you have to put a huge amount of work into it," says Pokorny. "You need to make sure the snail eggs are clean and perfectly preserved. You have to go through the eggs with a magnifying glass and check that each egg is perfectly clear."

The work pays off, however. Pokorny feels he can "definitely" make a living out of snail farming. "I can produce 50 jars a week on my own," says Pokorny. "If we start to export to the US, then we can do much more."

Being about a year old, it's early days for Shamrock Escargots and the company is largely selling most of its products online.

Those orders are coming from Irish people - and according to Pokorny, most of the Irish people ordering his products are those who have tried snails while holidaying abroad. "People have also come to our farm to buy live snails," says Pokorny.

Pokorny is hoping to sell his snails in Irish stores, supermarkets and restaurants. "We are trying very hard now to find retailers and restaurants to sell our products to," says Pokorny.

"I think retailers here are nervous as they aren't sure if the Irish are ready for snail products."

Pokorny believes the Irish have an appetite for snails after he saw a lot of interest in his products at the Bite Food Festival in the RDS last November. Shamrock Escargots was one of the companies displaying its products at this festival.

"There were so many young and old Irish people at that festival who have eaten snails before on holidays - and who were delighted to be able to try them again," says Pokorny.

"People often have a vision of a slimy creature in their heads when they think of snails. However, if you take our marinated snail fillets for example, these are cooked by me for up to five hours, so they're nice and tender by the time they're ready to eat. Snail meat is full of protein and it's a very low-fat meat."

Pokorny is hoping that his snails will be served in restaurants in Ireland and Europe. "Snail caviar is perfect for starters," says Pokorny. "It's mostly served on crackers and with sour cream and cranberry sauce."

He has big export ambitions. "Obviously the market we are mostly looking at is abroad - where snails are a usual food and used as appetisers or as part of the main meal," says Pokorny. "There's huge potential for export. There is interest in the US for our snail caviar and we are trying to find a way into that market.

"Snail meat is a traditional meat in France, Italy and Spain and there is a huge shortage of snails in these countries. France has to import over 80pc of its snails even though they have over 191 farms. Italy imports 65pc of its snail meat while Spain imports 55pc."

The export market was one of the many things which Pokorny researched before setting up Shamrock Escargots.

"Not only did I research the type of snail farm I needed to build, I had to research the type of soil which is suitable for the snails, and the buildings I needed for the farm."

Ireland is a good country for a snail farm, according to Pokorny. "The Irish weather is perfect for snails," says Pokorny.

"We've very wet conditions here. Some hot countries are not very healthy for snails as snails need a lot of water. Here in Ireland, there's plenty of natural water through the rain. Everywhere is green and there's very little extreme weather conditions."

He describes snails as "wise animals".

"Every time I go out to feed them, they are sitting up on the wooden pallets on my farm, waiting for their extra food," says Pokorny.

"By day, they are always under the pallets or hidden in the plants. When they are all sitting up on the pallets it's some sight to see them all together." As snails are small creatures, they need "intense minding and nurturing" from the outset, says Pokorny.

"The temperature they are kept in for hibernation is crucial, so that they don't wake up or die. When we imported our first snails in December 2015 and put them into hibernation, it was a tense time. Would they stay in hibernation?

"We had one of the warmest winters that year and unfortunately as our garage is well insulated, they started to wake. That wasn't good! We quickly bought some fans and had the fans running 24 hours a day to keep the garage cool enough."

Another challenge is field security. "You need to keep pests out such as rats, mice and so on," says Pokorny.

"Netting is crucial to stop birds getting in and eating your snails. As this is your living, you don't want to lose the snails so you must have galvanised steel around the field outside. However you always have a few 'runners' - a snail can travel about 15 metres a night."

Pokorny lives in Ballycowan with his Irish wife Marcella and their three children, Charlotte, Marcus and Isabelle.

"I couldn't say half a word in the English language when I first met Marcella," says Pokorny. "You can imagine what our first date was like!"

Their eldest child, Charlotte, is six; Marcus is three; and the youngest child, Isabelle, is one.

"We always have Charlotte's birthday party in our house, so last June all her class wanted a tour of the snail farm which was great fun," says Pokorny. "Charlotte also brought a few snails into her school for her nature table. There was great excitement in the class."

Although Pokorny loves working outside and is happy that he has bred his own snails, he describes the job as a huge challenge: he's the only worker but hopes to hire someone this year.

"I can't do everything myself," says Pokorny.

"I took a risk with snail farming as I was stepping into the unknown. Setting up your own business is expensive and there is a lot of investment in the start - with no guarantee you are going to be a success.

"I also work long hours and it has been a seven-days-a-week job. I love spending time with my family when I am not busy on the farm though - which hasn't been easy in the last year as I have been so busy setting the farm up. We try and always make the time we have together count."

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