At a Snail's Place

Richard Fullington is trying to make a fortune in a slimy business

Fullington's got the opposite problem. Since the little Helix aspersa aren't customarily eaten in the shell--the French again--Fullington is talking to the highway department, trying to figure out what to do with all his aspersa shells.

Death in the kitchen is always a delicate issue. (There have been numerous debates on the kindest way to kill a lobster--whether it's nicer to sever its spinal column or boil it to death.) According to French law, you must steam snails to kill them commercially. Fullington boils his snails for four minutes in a big stainless-steel kettle, but this has given him some trouble: The FDA insists that since the snails have been boiled, they can't be labeled "fresh." Fullington also gives his snails an acid bath of vinegar and water to rid them of most of their mucus before they're shucked. Finally, the snails receive another acid bath before being "cryovacked" into one-pound food-service packages with a shelf life of two to three weeks.

When Fullington started, he says, "I wanted to do everything by the book." He asked the Department of Agriculture for the guidelines for raising and selling snails. "They had no idea, so they referred me to the FDA, which had no idea and passed me on to the state, which classified us under the rules for seafood even though these are strictly land snails." In the end, Fullington worked with the Food and Drug Administration on drafting the guidelines for escargot production in this country.

Snails are "harvested" when they're seven to eight months old. They lay an average of 50 to 75 eggs, twice a year. Fullington keeps his snails strictly segregated in age groups by separating out the hatchlings, another reason for raising them out of the dirt, where he can see them. He points to the pinhead-sized whorl on the tiny tip of a snail shell. "That's how big they are when they're born," he says.

Fullington also keeps track of the breeders. Snails breed for three or four years, then die at 4 or 5. Tracking the life stages of the snail is a crucial part of Fullington's system and, like everything else, it's a trade secret. As businessman Dr. Cook puts it, "you have to be able to predict your inventory at a certain time." It's a business system applied to snail life-cycles.

The big, chilly kitchen behind the Escargot International offices is the EI "slaughterhouse" and packaging plant, which is barely furnished with just a huge kettle, some sinks, and metal tables holding the packaging equipment and 2,000 or 3,000 snails, stacked in plastic holding pens--the feed lots. The snails are kept here for a day before they're boiled, because they can lose 40 percent of their weight just from the stress of moving from the ranch: Water evaporates right out of them since they have no skin. Dr. Cook picks one up, and instead of retracting into its shell, it oozes right along on his open hand. "That's a happy snail," says Fullington. "They say a puppy that lays on its back is a happy puppy. A snail out of its shell is a happy snail.

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