PLEVEN, Bulgaria (Reuters) - On a quiet patch of land apparently devoid of inhabitants, Krasimir Kostov’s farm is silently booming as more than one million snails, hiding from the sun under planks of wood, munch their way to market.
“Indeed, you cannot tell...there is a farm here. But snails do not moo,” notes the suntanned breeder.
Businesses may shut by the day across Europe and Bulgarian agriculture has been declining for 20 years, but snails — a delicacy particularly popular in France and Italy — have become a dynamic niche for the European Union’s poorest country.
September is harvest season and demand is outstripping supply for “escargots,” as the French call them (“ohlyuvi” in Bulgarian). The country has seized the chance to reinforce a position exporting luxury foods that are rarely consumed at home.
After France, the Balkan country is Europe’s second-largest producer of foie gras, building on duck-liver traditions dating back to the communist era.
About 800-900 tonnes of snails and snail products — six times more than in 2008 — will be exported from Bulgaria this year to please the palates of aficionados, mostly in France.
“The market is immense,” said Kostov, 45, whose farm in northern Bulgaria primarily specialises in supplying baby snails for breeding to other farms. He pulled a face when asked if he liked their flavour.
“We had quite a few orders this year, but we could not fulfil them all because our incubator is not large enough.”
He will save some 60,000 snails of the Mediterranean Helix aspersa genus — one of the three major edible species — to become breeders. Each will lay about 150 eggs. The rest — about 10 tonnes or the equivalent of about 470,000 snails — will be exported.
So voracious are appetites that about 300 new farms are set to open in Bulgaria next year to add to the 50 now in operation, says the National Snail Breeding Cluster, which backs exports.
“This year we have orders from France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands,” said Simona Mollova, consultant at the cluster.
Orders were likely to reach 1 billion baby snails this year, she said, citing demand also from Japan for fattened escargots and from Dubai for the new, orange, carotene snail.
“We have a great number of clients, but at this stage we cannot meet demand in any way,” Mollova said.
Funding from the European Union, which Bulgaria joined in 2007, has also helped aid the snail business. Breeders are eligible to apply for some of the 3.2 billion euros (2.91 billion pounds) promised to Sofia to 2013 under a development programme.
French appetites for the gastropods — treated as exquisite delicacies since the Roman era — have withstood changing times and tastes.
“The snail market is a very traditional and stable market and ... big changes should not be expected,” said Pierre Commere, Secretary General of ADEPALE, the French association of food processing companies.
The tradition is stronger than the financial crisis, he said: anyone who wants to make a savoury treat for Christmas would try to afford snails.
A jar of snails with sauce weighing 0.4 kilos costs 50 euros, while high-quality gourmet packs fetch from 55 to 235 euros. By contrast, a kilo of the live snails Bulgaria breeds ranges from 2.5 to 4.O euros.
France and Italy, Europe’s largest consumers, devour between 25,000 to 36,000 tonnes of snails annually, but with the population of the prized Helix pomatia in decline in the west, the industry relies mostly on east European imports.
In 2006, the species, widely known as the Burgundy snail, was included in the EU directive on wild flora and fauna conservation and their gathering in the wild was limited.
Poland and Hungary used to lead the way in snail-gathering but economic progress since they joined the EU in 2004 has turned people off the hard work, causing a shortage in France last year, according to the French Federation of Preserved Food Industries.
Countries like Bulgaria, where agriculture accounts for 5-6 percent of Gross Domestic Product, welcomed the chance to fill the gap: recession, cheap imports and low farm prices have bankrupted hundreds of farmers this year.
People who once raised pigs, cows and poultry are looking for alternatives.
“Now everybody is a snail farmer,” quipped Kostov.
“Two years ago people laughed when we said we were breeding snails. But last year people simply went crazy. They are calling from everywhere to inquire.”
Kostov said one person can easily care for a farm with three to five 0.1 hectare parks — essentially by making sure there is enough moisture in the evenings when snails feed — but help is needed for harvest, when women and children join in from dawn to dusk.
He plans to double production from next spring and increase the area given over to snails to 1.5 hectares, two times the size of a football stadium, from 0.4 ha now.
This year Bulgaria, which transports most of its snails to plants in Greece for processing, is also starting to export a new variety of snails whose diet includes carrots as well as the traditional white clover and specialised fodder.
“They look very ridiculous, because they are orange,” Mollova said. But they fetch 80 euros per kilo.
Besides France, she said carotene escargots were headed to a Dubai hotel, but declined to give details.
In France, Bulgaria-reared escargots are praised for their good quality. Snail-processing company Romanzini, founded in 1921, has worked with Bulgarian snails since 1991 and imports up to 50 tonnes a year.
“The product is of good quality,” said Olivier Romanzini, adding that the Bulgarian escargots are as good as the French.
Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery in Paris; Editing by Anna Mudeva and Sara Ledwith