By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Escargot weigh in at about 100 dressed snails per pound. You do the math.
It is not surprising, then, that the French have just about eaten their way through their snail supply. The Burgundian snail, Helix pomatia, the preferred snail of gourmets, is now endangered. The season for gathering wild snails is strictly limited and the only escargots widely available are the pressure-cooked bits and pieces that come in cans. The question is, why don't the French cultivate their main course, the way Americans do turkeys and cattle?
It's because the only man in the world with the know-how lives in Dallas, that's why. So far, the French have failed at growing their favorite food commercially.
Richard W. Fullington looks like a well-to-do West Texas rancher in his polished cowboy boots, white turtleneck, and brown hound's-tooth coat. Only a small, gold, snail-shaped lapel pin clues you in to the fact that his long-horned herds are snails, not cattle. For several decades, Dr. Fullington has been the United States' foremost malacologist, or snail expert. Now out of his museum job and intrigued by the French snail crisis--"surrounded by opportunity," as he puts it--he's merged science and gastronomy and founded Escargot International, an Addison-based enterprise whose accepted mission is "to improve the quality of escargot worldwide."
"The truth is," says Dr. Fullington, "we're ranching." Like cattle, the snails are cut into herds, tracked by age, and fattened in feed lots before slaughtering. Right now, the "ranch" is a top-secret facility near Denton. Raising the billions of snails a year Fullington hopes and believes he'll need to fill demand will require a 200,000-square-foot snail ranch--quite a spread.
Fullington says Escargot International has reached a plateau. Given its limited resources and personnel--which, right now, consists of Fullington, a partner, and Fullington's wife, Lisa--the company needs investors before it can grow. For several months it has had to scramble just to keep up with orders generated by the 1995 Texas Restaurant Food Exposition, where hundreds of chefs and restaurateurs first tasted the Texas snails.
Richard Fullington did a stint in the Navy before attending Southern Methodist University, where he started out majoring in art and journalism. He settled on biology after being inspired in his sophomore year by an invertebrate course taught by Dr. Elmer Cheatum, then the leading malacologist in the U.S.
"Cheatum took a shine to me," recalls Fullington, "and snails are as interesting as any other organism; plus, all you gotta do is walk out in your backyard, and you find a new species of snail."
Following in Cheatum's trail, Fullington earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at SMU. Perhaps even then he was inching toward a combination of science and gastronomy: He recalls taking an elective on the utilization of the cockroach as a food source. Cheatum and Fullington continued to collaborate (researching all invertebrates, not just snails) after Fullington began working at the Dallas Museum of Natural History and on his doctorate at the University of North Texas.
"People look on invertebrates as 'yucky'," says Fullington. "I found 11 new species of land and water snails just in Texas. They're not warm and fuzzy like birds and they're not romantic like dinosaurs, but, discounting humans, three out of five organisms you're likely to see in a day are invertebrates. The vast majority of organisms is invertebrate. Insects are the most successful; mollusks are second. There are 100,000 species of described mollusks. They're very weak animals individually--97 percent water--but they've been around 200 million years."
Though the snail is a living relic of the Pleistocene era at the end of the last ice age, when there were 100 inches of rain annually in Texas, "there aren't many malacologists," says Fullington. "You know, seven or eight of us get in a closet and have our national convention, and there's really only one other specialist in land snails, up in Michigan. The field's wide open, but science is just as faddy as anything else." And malacology is hardly hip, although anyone who listens to Fullington for a while is going to end up more interested in snails than ever expected.
Fullington is full of snail tales. For instance, did you know that the octopus and the squid, cousins of the snail, have the most highly developed eyes of all the invertebrate animals? Structurally, they're almost exactly like human eyes.
At one time, when scientists were first trying to figure out the human line of descent, it was suggested that we were descended from the snail family. It turns out we probably evolved from the starfish.
Did you know that snails have teeth? They're on a gelatinous sheath on the tongue. "Imagine a sheet of Saran Wrap across your tongue with thousands of teeth arranged in rows, like on a file," says Fullington. "Most snails are herbivorous and they rasp vegetation, such as algae, off a surface. If you've ever had a cat lick you, it feels a lot like a snail's lick." Yes, Dr. Fullington has been licked by the Helix aspersa at his snail ranch. In some marine species of snail, those teeth have evolved into a virtual dart gun the snail shoots at his prey which is so venomous it kills can kill a human in 15 minutes.
"Out in West Texas," Fullington says, "there's a snail called the humboldtiana which is only found in canyons and on mountaintops, only in Texas, only in the U.S. These snails have a little sac in their bodies filled with love darts; they stick darts in each other to mate. It's closely related to Helix aspersa. Cheatum named one species Humboldtiana Fullington after me."
After 25 years at the Dallas Museum of Natural History publishing works like Recent and Fossil Freshwater Gastropod Fauna of Texas, Fullington was forced by a staff overhaul to take early retirement. What's an unemployed malacologist to do?
For one thing, Fullington does some consulting for paleontologists and archaeologists, who send Fullington the mollusks they've sifted from every level of their earth samples. Because mollusks are extremely climate- and habitat-specific, Fullington can produce a time column, centimeter by centimeter, describing climate changes and mollusk population densities, commenting on the paleoclimate, and giving a paleoecological interpretation.
Fullington decided, though, to mainly focus on one snail--the one he puts on your plate, where it's called escargot, no matter what kind of snail it really is. "The whole idea of raising escargots in the U.S. is not new. After all, it's a $75-[million]-to-$85-million-a-year market. That makes it real interesting and lots of people approached me about this over the years."
It looks easy, too, says Fullington. "Snails are hermaphroditic, so every one is a breeder." That would appeal to any rancher, but it's trickier than it appears.
Fullington is concentrating his snail-raising efforts on a European coastal snail called Helix aspersa, known in France as petit-gris, or "little gray." It's the smallest of the 116 edible snails, and, some say, the tastiest. First brought into this country by a snail-hungry French settler in 1854, according to Fullington, the immigrant quickly made itself at home.
"California is overrun by them and I've collected them all over. The first Texas Helix aspersa was found near Waco in the '30s. They're thicker than fleas in East Dallas and the Park Cities, where there's lots of trees and where people keep their automatic sprinklers set to water their St. Augustine. Snails like that."
It seems that the snail is, generally, highly successful, but that individual snails are extremely delicate. "You have to pamper them," says Dr. Fullington. "Nature doesn't have to." Nature's plan, that snails reproduce so quickly it doesn't matter whether a lot of them perish, is not a good business plan. Still, according to Fullington, "lots of people are trying to raise snails now because it looks like quick money."
Not surprisingly, these seemingly profitable, prolific creatures have spawned a number of snail-raising schemes and scams.
About 10 years ago, tempted no doubt by the potentially immense source of supply, a Michigan company was touting snail eggs, calling them "the next caviar." I tasted some. The pearly globes in a jellied mess were bigger than beluga and smaller than salmon roe, and had a distinctly earthy taste which made the comparison with caviar unfortunate.
Closer to home, and more recently, an ingenious entrepreneur in Houston sold snail-breeding starter kits. He charged $3 apiece for "breeder" snails, and signed contracts with his investors guaranteeing he would buy back, for his snail cannery, all the snails that were raised in the first year. But there was no snail cannery.
Fullington may have spent most of his life inside a museum, but he knows he's got the inside track in the snail business: "Without my knowledge and experience, no one's going to raise snails successfully."
He spent six months working out systems for the snail ranch. He gave a milling company a breakdown of the nutritional requirements of snails so that the company could produce a dry feed, sort of a "Snail Chow," which is dampened slightly to suit the snails' taste. (Snails have a strong affinity for decaying vegetation--the term is "detritus feeders.")
"We had some criticism from connoisseurs in the early days that our snails didn't taste 'earthy' enough," says Fullington. Snails, like chickens, have crops wherein, aided by the sand they eat, they masticate all the cellulose they ingest. "Snails only need dirt for two things," Fullington says. "They lay their eggs in it and they absorb a certain amount of calcium for their shells." Fullington provides soil for egg-laying twice a year and puts calcium carbonate in the snails' food.
Snails also absorb the flavor of any food they consume, so Fullington adds basil and thyme to some food mixes and Italian seasoning to others. He jokes about eventually producing flavored snails to order. "What about jalapeno-seasoned snails?" he says.
Unfortunately, like its cousin the oyster, the snail also absorbs heavy metals, toxins, and stores them without being affected by them. Snails must therefore be starved for a few days before they can be eaten. Fullington raises his snails in a soil-free environment which cuts down on the time it takes to purge them.
Fullington has researched his competition, too.
He has not been to the only snail-ranch wannabe, in California, an apparent competitor called Escargormet which is based on collecting snails, not raising them.
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.
Fullington has explored the European market, but was given the cold shoulder at the big food show last year in Cologne. "I had a list of escargot people to talk to and the first one I introduced myself to said, "I know who you are and I've been told not to talk to you."
The snail market is controlled by the French canners and "they're not stupid," says Cook. "They know that supporting the growers' industry means the end of their business, simply because fresh snails taste better than canned, so they suppress the growth of growing snails by continuing to buy cheaper imported snails."
The French are very stubborn about their snails. They admit the petit-gris has more flavor, yet they prefer the bigger pomatia.They're also very particular about how they eat snails. Dallasite Deborah Orrill, director of professional programs at the prestigious La Varenne cooking academy in Burgundy, says that "the French are stuck on the idea of le gout de terroir --the taste of the earth. They believe that 'what grows together goes together,' so the wines of a region naturally go with the food of a region. The best snails to them are the ones right there in the vineyard, the Bourgogne snails, which absorb the actual flavor of the Pinot noir vines they're eating."
Orrill also says that most chefs stick to the traditional preparation: "a dozen snails to a serving, in a little white porcelain dish with wells like an oyster dish. The snails are served in the shell, with a garlic-butter-parsley mixture and they come with a clamp to hold the shell steady and a little fork to extract the creature out of his garlic-butter bath."
Some of the younger French chefs are experimenting with new preparations: Orrill tasted breaded, fried snails at a restaurant in Burgundy, and, wine importer Stuart says, "the best way I've ever had petit-gris is at a little restaurant near where we live in France. They stuff the shell with ham and garlic and cheese and put that in the shell with the snail and cook it." New American chefs are even bolder, separating the snails from the shells and piling them over pasta or seafood, even pizza.
At Escargot International's Addison office, furnished with an Oriental rug, a receptionist's desk, and an armoire filled with snail shells, I was served a plate of escargots prepared by Chris Svalesen, executive chef of New American restaurant Yellow and a big fan of Fullington's snails. Playing off their earthiness, Svalesen piles the snails in a portobello mushroom cap, and sauces them with Chianti, reduced to a syrupy red sauce, seasoned with garlic and parsley.
Larousse Gastronomique, the bible of French cooking, calls for cooking snails up to three hours in wine and herbs; the famous French chef, Paul Bocuse, requires over an hour of cooking time for snails; but Svalesen treats these snails differently, sautéing them fast, for no more than five minutes, according to Fullington's instructions. The little creatures keep a lighter color than the black slugs from the can, and every little whorl of their former shell is visible so they look like so many little Dairy Queen cones. They have an al dente texture, just barely chewy, with a delicate herbal flavor that melds well with the meaty mushroom and the heady sauce. The Texas escargot appetizer on Svalesen's menu outsells all the others two-to-one, largely, he says, because "the waiters sell them, telling the customers these are Texas snails" (which proves that Texans are as chauvinist as the French, especially at the table).
Fullington's snails may have the same problems as cultivated chickens or farmed salmon. The business necessity of predictable production relying on standard conditions creates a standard product, too. Modern wire-raised chickens, travel-hardy tomatoes, and soil-free snails are not as flavorful as their free-range, homegrown, or wild counterparts.
On the other hand, the French have eaten themselves into a snail corner: They prefer to eat snails a particular way; they can't raise snails themselves; they have enormous appetites; and they've eaten up all the snails.
The French have managed to solve part of their snail export problem with the achatina fulica, an enormous Indonesian whorled snail that grows to be eight or 10 inches long. The Indonesians chop up the creature's foot, which the French canners import, label escargot, and export to the U.S. because we don't know the difference.
The French are being forced to compromise their taste, too. Even they put achatina back in the shell and take it out with the little fork. Right now, Greece and Turkey are the largest suppliers of snails to French canneries and the French are also eating some snails from Nigeria.
In any case, the snails that you eat didn't grow up with the shells you take them out of because snail shells are so difficult to clean that they're even harder to come by than the animal. Fullington says he counted four species of snail shell in one package of frozen French snails. (The Department of Agriculture recently banned the importation of snail shells.)
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.