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At least one other entrepreneur has tried raising snails from scratch. "A fellow named Ralph Tucker tried snail ranching in California in 1984," says Fullington, "but he went to France and saw the snail canneries with little fenced-in pens full of snails out under the trees and assumed that's where the snails grew when, actually, they were just holding pens for snails harvested in the wild. Tucker put his snails in pens but that means you have different generations of snails all mixed up, the snails stress out and the population implodes. You create an ecologically unstable environment." It wasn't long before Tucker's snail business went foot up.
In the 1970s, when the French finally realized they'd eaten nearly all the gourmet pomatia snails in France, they began to make a serious effort to raise them. Fullington believes concentrating on the pomatia is futile. A pomatia doesn't reach sexual maturity until it's 3 or 4 years old and it must rest for six months after breeding and laying its eggs or it will get stressed out and die.
Keeping the stress level down is of paramount importance to snails. They eat, breed, and sleep at night, so activity during the day overtires them. They get uptight about crossing other snails' trails because the slime not only helps them move but seems to have territorial significance, too. Adds Fullington: "You have to have chlorine-free water to bathe them." Bathe them?
"They're fastidious little creatures," says Fullington.
Before starting Escargot International, Fullington knew all about snails but nothing about business. His partner, Dr. Jim Cook, knew all about business. An eye surgeon who had to give up his career when he lost most of the vision in his right eye, Cook earned his M.B.A. at Harvard and worked for several medical businesses before meeting up with Fullington and joining the snail stampede.
It's Cook who decided that Fullington's knowledge of snails should be proprietary--like Dave's Top Ten List. As a scientist, Fullington's not entirely comfortable with that, but Cook is. "In the pharmaceuticals business, every time you sneezed, we patented it." So most of what Fullington has figured out about the finicky ways of snails is kept quiet, like the Coke recipe.
Humans have been eating snails since prehistory--cavemen ate snails 20,000 years ago and the Romans fattened them on wine and bran in elaborate "snaileries"--but in modern times, in the United States, they have come to be thought of as a quintessentially French delicacy, a food only the most refined and sophisticated palate could appreciate.
Fullington compares his effort to that of the early winemakers in this country, who were told their wines could never compete with the French, because the soil and climate of the French vineyards were inimitable. Fullington, the scientist, is skeptical of similar claims of snail connoisseurs. "This has been so exclusive to France," he says. "As an American, I'm interested in the challenge. It's not really in the dirt. The French just have a cultural lock on the gastronomy."
Wine importer Mickey Stuart, a Dallas resident with a house in France, disagrees, saying, "I've probably eaten more snails than anyone you know. The grapevine is the interpreter of the soil--the taste of the wine is the minerals in the ground, the wine is a great wine because of the soil and it's the same with snails. The French snails have an earthy taste. They're more flavorful. The canned ones are tough, but there's no such thing as fresh Burgundian snails in this country. The texture of Fullington's snails is OK, but they're too bland."
Steve Robbins, of Preferred Meats, Escargot International's Dallas distributor, is impressed with the quality of Fullington's product, though he jokes that "snails" are only worth about a dollar a pound--"escargots are worth a lot more," he says.
Robbins is accustomed to the exotic: Preferred Meats is a purveyor of ostrich meat and wild game as well as beef. Even so, he admits that Fullington's fresh Texas snails are not the easiest sell. "These snails are a far superior product to canned snails, but they cost a lot more, too," says Robbins. "It's like comparing a Hyundai to a Mercedes. You really can't compare them. A lot of chefs are leery of these snails because they're used to the can and these are so much more expensive--about $23 a pound, wholesale. You have to do a direct taste-test with the chefs because the price is so vastly different."
Fullington's snails don't even look like the canned imports. Perfectly spiralled meat-molds of their shells, these snails look like the chambered nautilus turned inside out. That curly part is called the hepatopancreas. It's the most nutritious and tastiest part of the animal, but the French frequently cut it off and keep it before canning. Fullington's snails are hand-extracted by the proprietary "Fullington Method" which involves a toothpick. His fastest shucker can only shuck nine a minute.
Escargot International's plan is to start at the top, getting established in the kitchens of the best American chefs, then developing a line of prepared snails for use in restaurant chains, and finally introducing them to the retail market. Right now, EI's snails are distributed in eight states and there was a lot of excitement last week when the company's Washington representative called to say he'd sold a couple pounds to the French ambassador.