Farming snails for the table


Farming snails for the table
HELICULTURE - Farming snails for the table
The set-up costs
aren’t very high
By Helen Smith
Do you engage in heliculture? If you have a garden
there is a good chance that
you are an inadvertent,
probably reluctant, helicultivator.
Heliculture is the name
given to the cultivation of
snails. For a number of reasons it is one of the simplest
forms of farming.
First of all it takes very little space. A suburban backyard could easily contain a
small snail farm, since breeding stock require only one
square metre per 200 snails,
while a density of 300 snails
per square metre can be used
for fattening.
The cost of setting up does
not have to be high and the
process of breeding and
growing snails takes very little effort. Finally, the acquisition of stock can be as
simple as going into your
garden on a damp night.
Helix aspersa (the brown
garden snail) is the main
snail grown for eating in
Australia. On restaurant
menus they are given the
name escargots, the French
word for snails, since it was
the French who began the
tradition of using snails as
part of their diet. Surprisingly for French cuisine, eating snails has health benefits,
some of which include the
fact that they are fat free and
high in vitamins A, C and
D, together with a large
number of essential amino
acids. However, the same
cannot be said for some of
the rich sauces in which they
are served.
There are two forms of
snail farming and both are
carried out in Australia. The
French method is to contain
the snails in specially con46 Small FARMS
structed crates or pens that
are often temperature controlled, while the Italian
method allows the snails to
free range within an enclosure open to the environment. The French method is
more intensive than the Italian with the snails needing to
be sprayed twice daily as well
as having fresh food delivered to them.
The Italian method has
problems, at least in Australian conditions, because of
the number of predators to
be excluded from the enclosure. Stories of mice, rats and
snakes devouring a grower’s
overnight are cautionary
tales that should not be
taken lightly. Both forms require the snails to be fed a
particular diet for some time
before they are ready to harvest. This can take nine
months to one year from the
time the babies, exact replicas of adult snails, hatch
from eggs that have been laid
about two weeks earlier.
Snails are hermaphrodites,
that is, they contain both
male and female parts, but
they must mate with another
snail. Thus, in one coupling,
an individual snail will receive sperm while depositing
its own sperm in its partner,
a procedure which can take
up to twelve hours. Soft
sago-like eggs are laid in
batches in the soil and can
sometimes be seen when gardening.
Three centimetres and
eight grams is the minimum
size for eating and once they
reach that size they must be
purged before they are ready
for processing. There are several schools of thought about
the best way to purge the
snails. One method requires
that they simply be deprived
Snail grower Jill Campbell, Riversbend Escargot
pictured with brown garden snails.
Specially built pens are used to house the farmed
January/February 2009
HELICULTURE - Farming snails for the table
of food for up to one week
until their digestive systems
have been cleared out. Other
methods include putting
them into boxes of bran for a
week or so, or feeding them
on milk for the same period
with the same purpose of
cleaning out their digestive
tracts. Purging is an essential
part of processing, to eliminate any grittiness from the
Once this has been accomplished, the snails are ready
for the pot. Pre-cooking is
followed by the removal of
the flesh from the shells.
Then the flesh is ready for
final preparation. One recipe
entails threading several
snails onto a skewer before
rolling the skewer in a mixture of breadcrumbs and
herbs and frying them in oil
until golden. Another recipe
uses them as the basis for a
In the Hunter Valley,
Robert and Helen Dyball
have been cultivating edible
snails since 2,000. After
much experimentation they
now grow the snails in pens
in a long igloo.
‘We produce about 2000
snails per week in season,’
Helen says. ‘We could easily
sell twice that number. Some
individual restaurants would
take 1,000 snails every week,
but we can’t produce that
many, in spite of having outsourced some of the snail
The Dyballs have established a company, Snails Bon
Appetite, for the purpose of
producing edible snails. In
an effort to increase their
outpu,t they have developed
a network of growers who,
for an annual fee, are provided with breeding snails,
special snail food, transport
and any other requirements
necessary for them to establish their own snail farm.
‘We have small farmers, individuals and even primary
schools who are growing
snails for us. So far we have
about 20 growers based in
January/February 2009
Queensland, Victoria and
New South Wales,’ Helen
explains. ‘When the snails
reach a suitable size and condition for purging, we buy
them back and process
To be eligible for the buyback, the snails must be at
least three centimetres
across, eight grams in weight
and cream in colour, not
black. To determine their
size, the Dyballs use a metal
ring with an inside measurement of three centimetres.
‘Any snails that fall through
the ring are not ready for
processing and do not qualify for the buy-back,’ says
Snails move more easily when the leaves and
ground are moist. They eat more and grow faster
with the correct environmental conditions.
These plants play a major role in the production of
snails and not only act as a rich food source but
also protection from the elements and predators.
Small FARMS 47
HELICULTURE - Farming snails for the table
Processing for market involves purging, cooking and
freezing the snails, after
which the flesh is soft-vacuum packed and they are
ready to be shipped all over
Australia. The Dyballs purge
their snails by keeping them
free of feed for one week.
In WA, Jill Campbell and
Ken Wright have a snail farm
that they established three
years ago on their property,
Riversbend Escargot, at
‘We researched the two
methods and decided that
the open enclosures of the
Italian system suited us best,’
Jill explained. ‘We had a big
setback 18 months ago,
when two dugites raided the
enclosures and ate our entire
breeding stock, so we had to
start again from scratch. Fortunately the snails had recently laid plenty of eggs, so
the farm was not totally destroyed.’
Since then, the couple have
modified their perimeter
fencing which previously was
simply shadecloth to half a
metre in height. Now the
area is bounded by corrugated iron with soft bird netting draped over the outside
‘Snakes don’t like the looseness of the netting,’ says Jill.
Jill and Ken hope to have
their first snails ready for sale
in about a year.
Every six weeks or so,
Robert Garreffa of Mondo
Carne Wholesale Butchers in
Perth buys about 150 dozen
pre-processed Australianproduced snails ready to be
used in gourmet cooking.
‘We sell snails to hotels,
restaurants, caterers and a
few to customers in our retail shop,’ Robert explains.
‘Unlike the imported canned
snails, they are not rubbery
and do not taste of brine.
They are very clean on the
palate and have a texture
similar to oysters, although
they have their own flavour.’
Check the garden. There
In this case corragated iron is added to the snail
pen to reduce the threat of snakes entering the enclosure.
South Wales Ph: 02 4998
may be a gourmet experience
out there just waiting for
Riversbend Escargo Nannup,
you. ■
Snails Bon Appetite, New
WA. Ph: 08 9756 0918. ■
New Model
just released with
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For your nearest dealer in Australia or New Zealand, phone 0411 040848 or email to [email protected]
48 Small FARMS
January/February 2009