For Charity Anaïs, getting Northern California’s first organic snail farm up to speed has been, ahem, slow going.
In the course of starting EscarGrow Farms, one of North America’s only escargotieres, over the past two years, Anaïs learned some fascinating things about snails.
For one, they’re hermaphrodites, so breeding them is, well, interesting — if a bit sluggish. While chickens take only a couple of months to raise and get onto the market, snails require a whole year. Also, snails are awfully picky about their diet; only fresh produce will do. And a hungry rat can take out an entire farm’s population in a single evening, sending the project back to square one. Once ready for harvest, snails require days to clean properly for consumption.
But perhaps the most important fact of all for Anaïs’ miniature livestock operation: The common brown snail — that pest to gardeners and organic farmers throughout California — is the same species that meets its fate in pools of herb butter in France. The nonnative creature was probably introduced to California during the Gold Rush, perhaps by French miners wanting a taste of home.
“It’s as if you were a cattle rancher and lived right next to a field with all these wild cows running around that you could take whenever you liked,” said Anaïs, 35, who launched EscarGrow in her San Francisco backyard in 2014.
Snails are robustly enjoyed pretty much everywhere else in the world, with rich traditions in Italy, Greece, the Middle East and, of course, France. They’re having a mini-comeback in the United States, too — yet there are almost no North American producers.
With the help of fine dining connections from her previous career as a sommelier, Anaïs has found a market for escargot at upscale San Francisco restaurants like Quince and 25 Lusk, and a smaller market for her snail eggs — an earthbound version of caviar, almost reminiscent of truffle. The eggs have even made their way into a cocktail at Michael Mina’s downtown Japanese restaurant, Pabu. Yes, fresh snails have captured the attention of local chefs.
“They’re a lot more delicate than canned,” said Craig Stoll of Delfina, where a nightly special of wild fennel sformatino “with fresh California snails” sold out last week, after some tweaks to menu wording. “There’s an aromatic sweetness. I think of them crawling around in the rosemary and fennel and wild herbs and things.”
Anaïs recently relocated to Eureka with her boyfriend for cheaper rent and more space to raise her snails and the organic greens she feeds them, but because she’s the only local snail supplier, she still makes frequent delivery trips to San Francisco restaurants, especially now that mating season has begun.
Anaïs first fell in love with escargot when she visited Burgundy on wine trips. When she came back to the United States, she realized they just didn’t taste the same. That’s mostly because the snails she ate in France were fresh snails, whereas the ones she could find here were canned.
“North America is the only continent that does not have a viable snail industry,” said Anaïs.
There are a few other barely publicized heliciculture (that’s snail farm) operations in New York, Washington and Fresno, but otherwise, the snail market was as wide open as the racetrack in “Turbo.”
Turning the idea into an actuality was a bit more challenging. She soon discovered that there isn’t a whole lot of information about heliciculture out there — in English, anyway. But she got hold of “Escargots From Your Garden to Your Table,” written in 1978 by Francois Picart, a Frenchman who had lived in Sonoma County.
This article originally appeared on SF Chronicle.