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Snails (or snails): Piedmontese breeding makes us love Italian escargots
Snails (or snails): Piedmontese breeding makes us love Italian escargots

There is a curious mechanism by which products of popular and peasant cuisine, which for centuries have fed entire generations, in our era of opulence have become niche delicacies. This is the case of the snails, les escargots French, commonly called snails (but the snail to be honest is the one without a shell).

Beloved in the South and in different areas of Northern Italy, for some they remain one gastronomic extravaganza, for others they are a greedy habit. And many still today link them to a famous film joke, that "shit a snail" exclaimed by Julia Roberts during an elegant dinner in the company of Richard Gere (for the uninitiated, the film was Pretty Woman).

From harvest to breeding


Before landing on the most refined tables, snails were a humble but precious ingredient, zero-cost proteins to be collected by killing two birds with one stone: to prevent them from devouring fields and vegetable gardens (they are very voracious) and to put a substantial dinner on the table.

Today, the collection of snails it is only amateur, at least in Italy where it is not possible to market homegrown "wild" snails, but exclusively those reared.

Dispelling the myth that "wild is better", it is obvious that there is breeding and breeding. The flagship of Italian production is the one that follows the Cherasco method, from the name of the Piedmontese town that has made this activity the heart of its economy. By creating a virtuous circuit in which nothing is thrown away from the snail, like the pig.

He is a visionary advocate of the method Simone Sampò which, with its International Institute of Heliciculture, has developed a specification which includes 700 farms out of just over a thousand present in our country.


Simone Sampò, president of the Institute of Heliciculture

The Institute reports Association of breeders, the Academy which deals with training and various commercial brands related to food, production technologies and also cosmetics and pharmaceuticals (which I'll talk about shortly).

The Piedmontese method


Returning to the national producers, if a thousand seem like a lot, they nevertheless satisfy only 20% of the internal request. For the remaining 80%, the local market depends on imports.

It must be said that, in reality like Turkey, Morocco, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Ukraine, production is still largely based on harvesting and / or on intensive farming.

Two techniques that can compromise quality: because the collected snail can be grown on contaminated land or food, while intensive farming has the same limits as those of other animal species, from the use of industrial feed to "overcrowding".

On the contrary, the Piedmontese method breeds in open air fences with self-produced vegetable feed, thus also giving an input to local agriculture and adding a piece to the circular economy or - as Sampò defines it - helical that revolves around these little animals.

A matter of taste

From the point of view of the final product, the meat of Cherasco snails is positively affected by Power supply acquiring particular nuances of flavor according to the vegetables and fruit given to the animals: pumpkins, trumpet courgettes, beets, apples, melons, sunflowers (of which they devour everything except the seeds!) they clear the earthy notes and give sweetness and a round taste.

The system is exported in many countries including France, Croatia, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan, adopted by dozens of breeders.

How to buy them


Unfortunately, on the label it is not mandatory to indicate anything other than a generic one Italy / EU / Extra EU origin, and there is no indication of origin from breeding or harvesting. Thus, the quality guarantee remain national production and of course that certified Cherasco Method.

The fresh snails, still in the shell, in the Center and South are purchased from greengrocer, while in the North they are bought in fishmonger.

The price per kilo it is generally between 13 and 15-16 euros approximately.

Like marine shellfish, they are sold lives but in a condition defined as "epiphragmature", similar to lethargy, protected inside the shell by a thin patina that closes the shell-like mouth. And that allows snails to have one shelf life very long, up to 60 days.

The most sold North, where shelled and pre-cooked are preferred, are the large Helix Pomatia Alpina and Helix Aspersa Maxima, Typica and Muller (in order of size), while to the south the smaller ones are preferred, still in the shell: the Eeobania Vermiculata (called Rigatella), the Otala Lactea, the Theba Pisana, the Helix Aperta.


The black garlic risotto with snails and "caviar" by Francesco Oberto, in Cherasco

But, as Sampò points out, there is a great variety of local names by which they are called in the different regions.

In gastronomy and large-scale distribution, you can buy those, even frozen ones precooked which can still be with the shell or shelled, to be finished as desired. And of course there are various recipes, in practice only to be heated.

Finally, a small gem is the so-called "Snail caviar", the white eggs, with a neutral but rather decorative taste.

Not just on the table


Under the dome, snails are induced to produce drool

We cannot speak of snails as a delicious gastronomic specialty without mentioning their use, in pharmacy and cosmetics, of the snail slime.

The little animals produce it to help themselves slide on land and plants and, at the same time, to strengthen and regenerate tissues damaged by friction thanks to the nutrients, healing and antioxidants of which it is composed.

Similarly, snail slime is used in the formulation of drugs such as gastroprotective and throat syrups, but also face creams, hair products, beauty treatments.

I close this brief parenthesis with a curiosity: the Cherasco Method uses a system of cruelty free extraction which induces the production of drool with the use of an "exciting" liquid, creating a sort of "wellness center" for happy snails.

Thus, once the slime has been collected, the snails can return to the enclosures and continue their life cycle. And this too is helical economy.

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