French snail farmers struggling as restaurant shutdown kills trade

Successive Covid-19 lockdowns may have given people in France, as elsewhere, a newfound taste for home cooking, but one delicacy has yet to worm its way back onto the nation's plates: snails.

French snail farmers struggling as restaurant shutdown kills trade
Snail farmers have received small amounts of aid from the state but say it is not enough to offset their losses. Photo: AFP

With the country’s restaurants closed since the start of a second lockdown on October 30th, producers in France’s “escargot” heartland of Bourgogne are battling to stay afloat.

Snails cooked in garlic butter is a classic of French cuisine that has long inspired a mix of fascination and horror among tourists, particularly Britons who recoil at the idea of eating the molluscs.

While few French people buy snails on a regular basis — they are generally rolled out during parties or the holiday season — they still regularly feature on restaurant menus.

But with restaurants looking set to remain shuttered for several more weeks as France battles to bring down stubbornly high Covid-19 infections, snail farmers fear for their future.

“In 2020, my sales were down by 33 percent more than forecast,” producer Herve Menelot told AFP, adding that he did not pay himself a wage from June to October 2020 and was living off his savings.

“This year is the same. I have no (trade) show coming up, no farmers’ market, no restaurants. We’re not very optimistic, Menelot said, adding that he feared he may have to wind down his business.

Olivier Dard, another producer, told AFP his turnover had halved in 2020. Dard was forced to take a job with the local council to supplement the family’s income.

The French snail industry is made up of hundreds of small farmers who have been struggling to compete with cheaper imports from Eastern Europe.

Only 5 percent of the 30,000 tonnes of snails consumed every year in France – a protected species that cannot be scooped up off a path and sold – are French.

Snail farmers have received small amounts of aid from the state but say it is not enough to offset their losses.

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!