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French snail industry pays the price for EU enlargement


Traditional sources of snails are drying up

Traditional sources of snails are drying up

Traditional sources of snails are drying up

A slow-motion crisis threatens the French way of life - the great snail shortage of 2008. Shell-shocked French food processors have warned that they can no longer obtain sufficient quantities of snails from eastern Europe, their principal source of supply.

Snail collecting for the French market used to be a popular way of making money in eastern European countries, especially in Poland and Hungary. But since they joined the European Union five years ago, better-paid job opportunities have flourished.

In a glum statement, the French food processing industry announced that snail-collecting was now the object of "growing disaffection" among eastern Europeans. People were no longer keen to leave home before dawn on wet days, armed with a torch, to search the Polish forests or Hungarian scrubland for the "burgundy snail" or Helix pomatia.

As a result, the price of processed snails in France will rise sharply later this year, warned the Federation des Industries d'Aliments Conserves. The French eat 25,000 tonnes of snails a year - equivalent to 700 million individual snails. Two in every three snails eaten in the world is consumed in France.

The attraction remains a mystery to much of the rest of the planet. The sauce served with the snails - made from garlic, parsley and butter - is delicious, but to the uninitiated, the escargot itself tastes like a tired piece of chewing-gum.

A quarter of the French market is still supplied by French snail-hunters, who mostly search for snails for their own tables. The small French snail-farming industry has suffered badly in recent hot, dry summers.

Two thirds of all the snails eaten in France come from eastern Europe and the Balkans. Of the ready-cooked or processed snails - widely used in the less expensive or less scrupulous restaurants - 99 per cent come from abroad.

A higher bounty will now have to be paid, French food processors concede. Hunters used to get as little as two euro centimes per snail. Transport and processing costs are also booming. As a result, prices are certain to spiral this year, the French food processing industry warned.

At present, consumers in France pay about ¤3.50 (£2.77) for 12 boiled snails, or ¤6 if they are supplied ready-cooked in the traditional garlic-based bourguignon sauce.

The H. pomatia, or grey-and-brown, spiralled, edible, burgundy snail, is said to have become rare in France. Although it is a protected species, hunting, for private consumption or sale, is still permitted.

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Madeleine Lechartier, 61, from Culey-le-Patry in the hills of lower Normandy, has been a keen snail-hunter, and eater, all her life but the crisis of 2008 will not trouble her. "The problem is not a shortage of snails it is a shortage of people who know where to look and can be bothered to collect their own," she said. "I always start in summer at about 5am, preferably on a wet day, turning over the big leaves or pulling aside the grass."

"People say there is a shortage but the wet summers of the last two years have been very kind to snails. I have 500 snails in my larder, already cooked. We will eat them little by little."

What is the attraction of eating snails? Is the taste not just in the sauce? "If you eat the processed snails, yes," she said. "Wild snails, they are quite different. Ah, the taste of a wild snail. That is very special and delicate."

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