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Mike created an enclosure for the snails, what he calls a “park” in the back garden. It didn't cost much financially to set up but he invested a lot of time studying snail farming and took courses and sat exams. Only two species of snail are farmed in France: small grey snails -petit-gris (helix aspersa aspersa) and big grey snails - grosgris (helix aspersa maxima). Mike decided to go for the latter, “they’re meatier and tastier” he says. Snail farming starts at a “snails pace” says Mike, starting with breeding. “Mating takes hours, anything up to two days from start to finish, tantric” he grins. When the tiny babies are born in spring, Mike transfers them carefully and slowly by hand to the wooden posts in the enclosure. “There’s no certainty in this game” he says, “I always panic about them at this stage”. As they grow the snails roam their park freely, Mike stops them escaping “mostly” by rubbing black soap, a natural repellent, along the top of the fence that encloses the park. Some farms use electric fences, but Mike’s philosophy is about keeping things as natural and ethical as possible. He doesn’t use chemicals or pesticides but grows plants the snails love such as mustard which feeds the soil by absorbing nitrogen from the air and transferring it to, and improving, the soil, as well as providing shelter from rain and sun. His dog Wanda has been trained to work with ferrets to clear out any unwanted visitors – scaring off birds and rodents.
The snails take 150 days from egg to maturity. “It’s a lot of work” he confesses, “I doubt if I’ll ever get rich doing this, but I love what I do, it’s my passion”. but has help at busy times of the year from students who gain valuable work experience for planned careers in the catering and restaurant industry. The snails grow all through the summer and are harvested in autumn. They are killed by being dipped in boiling water, “it’s immediate” says Mike. The meat is separated from the shells and blanched, then it’s rapidly chilled or goes into dishes which are frozen “it’s the best way to retain the nutritional value and the taste”. The shells are scrupulously cleaned and used for presentation. “In theory, we can keep the meat for up to 18 months” says Mike “but that never happens, we always sell everything well before that”. All the work at the farm is done by hand, from harvesting to cleaning and preparation of the dishes. Mike does everything himself
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