In Zakarpattia region, two snails farms are changing the view on agriculture. The dish, which is considered a French delicacy, today is a local tourist attraction and export product for Europe.
It is not easy to see this animal: a bit slimy mollusk covered with nice round shell hides not just in the grass, but inside of special wooden pens, which keep moisture and protect from the sun. These “houses” are called here communal apartments: the first floor is a bedroom, the second is a dining room.
Although the place where snails are raised for eating is called a farm, as well as farms with pigs, cows, goats or sheep, the only common thing is that these animals are kept and fed by people, and they graze. Actually, for the Zakarpattia region, this strange “cattle” is pure exotica. Local wild mollusks are called here “slugs” and “chiga-biga” in a Zakarpattian dialect. Chiga-Biga is a character of poems and songs for children, which hasn’t been food yet or an expensive delicacy. Local people react differently when they are offered to taste escargot: from “wow, how interesting” to “Yuck! That’s gross!” However, today escargot is gradually becoming (which is typical of this mollusk) not only a tourist attraction but also a promising business for Zakarpattian agriculture.
The farm is situated in the village of Nyzhne Selyshche. Already for the second season, it offers to taste snails or to buy them frozen. The farm is an interesting start-up, at first, local people didn’t understand it, they are used to other agricultural businesses: first of all, dairy production, for example, cheese. To start this business Mykhailo Demian was doing his best to learn as much as he could: he read about snails farming, had an internship at his colleagues’, who were the first to open such a farm in Ukraine, went to Cyprus, Poland, Romania and the Baltics to visit snails farms, finally he was experimenting by himself. There were three seasons of work, and the last year became the first to bring “harvest”. Today this farm is the first snails’ farm in Zakarpattia, which also is opened for tourists.
The farm raises Muller mollusks (Нelix aspersa muller), which are a true delicacy in Europe. They cost about one hundred euro per kilogram, and often even higher at restaurants. Mykhailo doesn’t reveal the profit of his business – it is a trade secret. But he is happy to make a tour into the “stable” and tell what this new for the agriculture of Zakarpattia animal is special for.
He put snails of different generations on his hand and told us about their hermaphroditism (snails can change their sexes during their lives), about their nightlife (they eat only at night) etc. He says, “The idea appeared when my friends brought me some frozen snails from their trip to Europe: it was delicious.”
As far as this business is new, Mykhailo learnt many things only due to his experience, through trials and errors: starting from finding a proper temperature and moisture level (he provided a fogging system) to a particular diet for demanding mollusks. Results are positive: a snail, living in nature, grows up to a necessary size, so it can be eaten, in 4 years; however, the farm reduces this period to one year.
Escargots are good not only in their taste. They have extra much protein. Although a piece of meat from one snail is slightly bigger than a crumb, it is very nutritional. Mykhailo Demian says that even bodybuilders are interested in escargot. “Of course, you can’t get fat by eating it. But it is no good to eat too many snails. A regular portion at a restaurant is six shells, of course, you can order a dozen, but as for me, it is maximum,” he says. Snails can be added to salads as well as marinated. Mykhailo jokes, “Well we can make even bograch (Hungarian dish popular in Zakarpattia) with snails, but it will be golden!” Escargot is both tasty and exquisite product. Moreover, snails farming is an eco-friendly business.
Today there are 120 000 snails on this farm. Mykhailo is going to reach 10 tones snails per year. Snails from this farm are already eaten at restaurants of Italy and France. Ukraine is getting known as a world snails exporter to the EU. By the way, snail-hunting out in the wild is forbidden. Of course, Ukrainian farmers undergo a thorough control of the EU establishments. Ukraine has almost caught up Poland, which is, as it turned out, a major snails exporter.
The farm in the village of Nyzhne Selyshche offers such dishes as a classic Burgundian style escargot with tomatoes and garlic, escargot with crocus and special herbs: snails with local cheese and lekvar (a special very thick plum jam cooked in Zakarpattia). The specialty is snail caviar. It is considered to taste like sturgeon caviar, however, it is better not to compare. It concerns snails as well: the best in a delicacy is its soleness… Actually, snails were firstly eaten by peasants, they worked in fields and vinelands, found snails and just fried them to have a snack). Today, this dish is served at luxurious restaurants of Europe.
“We don’t eat snails from this house – they are our athletes!” jokes Volodymyr Herzanych, a co-owner of eco-farm “Raco”, which is situated in the village of Rakovo in the Zakarpattia. Actually, the idea appeared due to a joke at a picnic. He said to his friends with children, “Let’s arrange a race for snails in the garden!” Today there is a tablet near the entrance, which says that this farm hosted the first snail race.
On the specially equipped stadium, the fastest snails crossed the destination in 30 minutes – not worse than their European colleagues. They were late only for 7 seconds to set the world record. However, these snails are not going to take part in world competitions. They have another mission – developing of tourism in Zakarpattia countryside.
This farm is special for its authentic attitude. It raises not import or exotic snails but local ones, edible snails. This is a peculiarity of this farm. Snails were collected last year. After that, they have multiplied their population, lived in a boiler room near a stable the whole winter, and this is the first season they are fighting not to be the fastest but rather to attract tourists to the district and the region in general.
Snails seem to like climate, soil and grass in Rakovo: they gain weight and multiply; new babies are to arrive in the middle of the summer – snails have already laid eggs. Unlike the farm in Nyzhne Selyshche, here you can’t taste snails caviar. Owners care for population increase. There is only one escargot recipe here: with butter and greenery. It is cooked with local products. Thus, it is a true “Zakarpattian style escargot.”
The eco-farm “Raco” is introducing a new original escargot dish in July. It also has other plans for developing their business aimed at entertaining tourists – involving not only snails.
“They like it here so much that wild snails come to the house from the garden. However, our snails also sometimes flee. I gather them like mushrooms and bring back home”, Volodymyr says, smiling. He shows us his snails, which grow fast. There are no special conditions and diet. The main food is nettle and local, authentic grass. “What do guests ask me about? Well, they even give some more information for me! Once a little boy asked me whether I knew how many teeth snails had. It turned out – 1400!”, Volodymyr Herzanysh doesn’t conceal that these animals are unusual, interesting and even amusing for him.
The most important thing, apart from the shadow, for Volodymyr is a proper moisture level, because snails die when it is dry. That’s why he regularly waters the “stable” with spring water. Bigger, so-called “runners”, snails, possible champions of snails races, live apart. Serhii Hudak, a photograph, calls this box “the headquarters of Olympic Reserve” and chooses an “athlete” for a photo session. To make a snail pose, i.e. to make it get out of a shell, it should be slightly watered for several minutes: a mollusk will show its horns, which are its eyes, in fact.
“Take your time” is a philosophy of every snail, even an ”athletic” one. Snails, which are known for their slowness, can make people wait not only for the finish but also for the start of races – they should get outside from a shell. However, the start can’t guarantee the finish: chiga biga is very likely to change its mind, turn back or simply “go home”. A race is just an opportunity to communicate and enjoy products of the eco-farm. And, of course, it makes people smile.
Anyway, snails farming for Zakarpattia (there are four of them in Ukraine, according to Zakarpattian tourism experts, there are also several farms where snails are not raised but just gathered) is not only fun but an original agriculture business, which is a problem in the region. A region with a certain landscape and little land for planting has never been an easy place to live in. However, it is tourism, which can boost a development of the region. The main profit for the farm in Nyzhne Selyshche is export, as for the eco-farm in Rakovo, it is tourists who come to see the farm and taste escargot. Thus, a little chiga-biga is a big hope for local people to have job and prosperity – on their own land, like in a shell, not hurrying to far and strange overseas countries…
P.S. One more fact about snails. For example, experts say that in 2017 snails exported by Ukraine estimated four times as many as exported salo (lard): 380 tones. The amount is tending to increase. The 2018 budget has money for snails farmers, however, according to forecasts, most of the funds will be used for the needs of the poultry industry, which is on the same line with snails in the budget, but it has a powerful lobby. However, snails farmers are used to a slow-living…
By Alla Haiatova
Photo: Serhii Hudak