Inch by Inch
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN
A Quilcene snailery grows a niche
Ric Brewer’s farm sits along a winding road that cuts up into the hills. Even on an overcast day, backlit leaves of the deciduous trees that arch over the roadway make the air look green. The dense tree cover breaks up a little near his five-acre plot in the town of Quilcene, which sits along Hood Canal in the Olympic Peninsula. Brewer keeps a small orchard and tends an expanse of shamrock-green grass dotted with evergreens, alders, and birch. The fir-tiled Quilcene Range stands splendidly to the west, visible through a break in the trees.
A corrugated-steel enclosure covered with netting sits next to Brewer’s hand-built cabin. Inside, four raised garden beds are rectangles of stout vegetation. Clinging to knobby kale leaves and nestling into the riot of nasturtium, basil, and chard, are thousands of stripe-shelled garden snails. Brewer is a snail rancher, operating one of the only escargotieres in the country.
Little Gray Farms is only 15 miles from the place where Brewer grew up, in a temperate rain forest that sits at nearly the same latitude as the renowned, snail-rich Burgundy region of France. He founded the farm in 2011 and named it for the snail he breeds, Cornu aspersum, commonly known as the garden snail — known in France as the petit gris, meaning “little gray.”
The snail has long been bred in Europe for its texture; it’s thought that immigrants carried it to California in the 1850s for the same reason. It didn’t take long for the snails to escape into the wild, where they multiplied and spread to temperate zones across the country. Today, they’re ubiquitous, a maddening reality for fruit and vegetable growers, but one that makes for a ready mollusk supply. To acquire his original stock, Brewer and his friends foraged in local forests.
The petit gris procreates prolifically, a quality that can be harnessed in the garden. Last year, Brewer grew 10,000 snails in his small space, a yield that puts the potential of the industry into perspective. This season, he’s primed to double his production. Once his acreage is in full operation, he’ll be able to produce 500,000 snails annually.
“It generally takes about a year or so to reach a size and weight that’s large enough for market,” Brewer explains. “A cow can reach market before a snail can. It takes a bit of patience.”
Other character traits behoove a snail rancher, too: resilience, tenacity, and a geeky fascination with snail minutiae. A former reporter and communications manager, Brewer’s love of the creatures dates back to childhood trips into the woods, where he spent hours observing snails and other wildlife. As an adult, he became better acquainted with the gastropods as an employee of the Woodland Park Zoo, where he spent more than a decade breeding and promoting the survival of a species of Tahitian tree snail.
After five years of farming petits gris, Brewer is familiar with the fickle eating habits of his charges (they like nasturtium one year, ignore it the next) and the intricacies of their reproductive lives (as hermaphrodites, they mate for up to 12 hours, a process that can include stabbing each other with calcium spikes known as “love darts”). He’s dedicated to snails not only as an underutilized, sustainable source of animal protein, but as a no-waste agricultural product.
In late April, Brewer moves the snails from their hibernation quarters in the greenhouse to the outdoor garden beds. He starts harvesting them in May. To prepare the snails, he plucks them from the garden and purges them on a diet of organic grains, then plain water. The snails are refrigerated overnight to force them into hibernation, before he boils and shells them by hand. A few restaurants buy them live.
In preparation for retail distribution through Marx Foods, which started selling his snails in February, Brewer built an indoor production center in Seattle and started growing what should have been his first winter crop. But the whole lot succumbed when temperatures soared in the summer. Until a new indoor operation is established, Brewer is supplementing his product with snails from a California grower in the winter.
Almost all of the escargots consumed in the U.S. are canned, which has given the gastropods a “rubbery reputation,”, says Kim Brauer, culinary concierge for Marx Foods. She contrasts them with Brewer’s snails, which have a texture “similar to a really fresh clam.” Brauer and other chefs say fresh snails taste like the forest: They are woodsy, mushroomy, grassy, and terrestrial.
For most of us, escargots are synonymous with Escargots à la Bourguignonne, the classic appetizer that combines cooked snails stuffed in their shells with butter, parsley, and garlic. That’s how Eli Dahlin, the chef at Damn the Weather, likes to serve them, though he adds a splash of pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur. Holly Smith, chef and owner of Cafe Juanita, says they may welcome spring with a snail and green garlic risotto, garnished with house-made blood sausages. Le Petit Cochon and Stumbling Goat Bistro also serve Little Gray Farms’ escargots.
Home cooks can experiment with them, too. Marx Foods offers Brewer’s snails frozen and vacuum-packed, online ($76 for eight ounces includes overnight shipping) and in their Queen Anne store ($19 for four ounces).
Not everyone will eat snails, but those who do collectively spend millions of dollars on them every year. Almost the entire domestic market is made up of imported escargots grown in far-flung places, most notably in Eastern Europe, whose snail industry supplies an increasing number of escargots to France. (The French public consumes 33,000 tons of them every year.)
If fresh snails taste better and have an established fan base, why are snail farms in this country so rare? It’s political. The USDA classifies snails as invasive agricultural pests, so the transport of live snails or their eggs across state lines is forbidden. The restriction not only relegates Brewer’s live sales to Washington State, but it also impedes the development of a market in snail eggs and hatchlings for would-be growers. It frustrates him.
“Pretty much everything we eat could be classified as an invasive species,” he says. “We do not have native cows. We do not have native pigs. We don’t have native sheep. The snails are already here. They’ve been here for a very long time.”
The petit gris has, in fact, been here longer than the Pacific oyster, a comparison that should give us pause. Why not allow another introduced mollusk and culinary darling to thrive as a farmed product?
Brewer can’t see any reason not to try. If he succeeds — and if others follow — farmed snails could become as common on the plate as they are in the forest, a lively player in our food system’s sustainable (and delicious) future.
Jennifer Crain is an Olympia-based freelance writer specializing in food production and business. Read more about her work at jennifercrain.com.