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Meet the Carlow farmer making this very French delicacy much more Gaelic

Ever wondered how you wrangle a free-range snail?

IN IRELAND THEY’RE more of a pest than a delicacy, but one Carlow producer hopes to turn the humble snail into the country’s latest cash crop.

Enter Eva Milka, the entrepreneur behind the island’s first free-range snail farming business, Gaelic Escargot.

She told TheJournal.ie the idea was born from “a passion for food” and in particular, escargot, a dish most-commonly associated with garlic- and butter-soaked French cuisine.

Milka, who emigrated from Poland about seven years ago, first began growing the slimy gastropods in plastic containers inside her Kilkenny apartment.

“We loved them and we couldn’t buy them here in Ireland – so we decided to start breeding them and satisfying our own appetite,” she said.

But after doing some research and discovering there was a global shortage in supply, Milka decided to make the most of Ireland’s notoriously sodden climate to establish her snail farm on a one-acre plot in Co Carlow.

“It’s hard to be the first – there are a lot of advantages of course, but there are a lot of disadvantages as well,” she said.

We realised the Polish breeding system doesn’t work here because the climate is so different; we tried the French system but that didn’t work either. We really had to develop a whole, unique method to suit the Irish weather conditions.”

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A premium crop

Last year her business produced its maiden crop, about 7.5 tonnes of escargot in total, of the premium product – which sells for more than most of the choicest cuts of meat or poultry at over €30 per kilo.

Snail-based beauty products (believe it or not) and snail-shell fertilizers are also among the potential spin-off industries for farmers, she said.

And while Milka admitted there was little domestic appetite for escargot, she said foodies in continental Europe – and as far afield as the Middle East and Asia – were clamouring for a Gaelic product.

“The fact that is Irish is the biggest selling point,” she said.

When you think about Ireland, you think about green, organic, free-range; about passion for food. Irish food has such a great reputation abroad …. you have an ideal climate to breed them outdoors, you have access to clean water and good soil.”

Despite last year’s successful harvest, for 2015 the business has changed tack to focus on creating a viable Irish escargot industry.

Our initial growth strategy was to expand our production. We didn’t realise that we would get so much interest from Irish people who wanted to start growing snails.”

Milka has been putting together a training manual and offering introductory snail-farming courses with the hope of creating a co-op which could one day market and distribute an Irish-branded product.

There are also plans in place to link up with a third-level institute to develop the best snail-breeding techniques for the local conditions.

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Runaway snails

One acre can produce a once-yearly harvest of up to 10 tonnes of snails, which are fattened up over a six-month growing period to between 8 and 12 grams each on a diet of dry food and their natural “grazing”.

But how exactly do you wrangle a free-range snail, anyway? With electric fences to keep them in their paddocks, naturally.

You always get a few escapees, but they have everything they need – food, water – so why would they want to go anywhere?,” Milka said.

Given enough time, even local taste buds might be turned around to the continental speciality.

“They’re very nutricious and very low in fat,” Milka said. “It’s a very healthy food.”

This month, as part of TheJournal.ie’s ongoing small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we look at product provenance – how buying local matters and the importance of traceability. 

To view previous articles in our SME series click HERE.

READ: ‘We don’t go to China for anything’: Irish business owners on why they are successful >

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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